Glorious Sounds At Lifehouse

Dr Sarah Penicka-Smith conducts the Lifehouse Volunteer Orchestra and Choir

One spring Sunday afternoon in Sydney, just a few weeks ago, a motley conglomerate of around 100 choral singers and instrumentalists gathered with two solo singers, under the music direction of Dr Sarah Penicka-Smith, to perform in a hospital foyer. These people had never previously performed together as group. However, such was the spirit and the passion of those who volunteered their time and talent for this venture, that after a brief run through of ‘tops and tails’ (where one movement in the piece joins the next), the participants delivered a truly dazzling sound which wafted up through the heights of the foyer to reach the wards and corridors of the building.

The location was the atrium of Sydney’s Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, a not-for-profit, patient-focussed centre of excellence for the holistic and integrated treatment of cancer, named after the gifted surgeon who, in 2009 lost his own battle with an aggressive brain tumour. The music director and tour de force behind the project, is Dr Sarah Penicka-Smith, Director of Music at St Andrew’s College, The University of Sydney who also counts Pacific Pride Choir, Macquarie Singers and River City Voices amongst her numerous responsibilities. The performers were choral singers and orchestral players from all walks of life and levels of ability – professional and amateur. The music was Vivaldi’s Gloria, a standard in the choral repertoire, which many musicians have performed at some stage in their musical lives and would know already.

Sarah describes the origins of this ‘pop-up’ choir and Lifehouse Volunteer Orchestra. “This project grew organically from an idea that Bethany Cottee, a nursing student resident at St Andrew’s College had, to take the college choir into the surrounding hospitals. The St Andrew’s College Choir has been a regular visitor to the Lifehouse for the past few years, and Patient Experience Manager Lorainne Brecard said she’d welcome any musical group with appropriate repertoire to use the foyer, even just as a rehearsal space. It occurred to me that there’d be plenty of musicians in Sydney who’d welcome the chance to perform in a hospital, provided the project didn’t require a big rehearsal commitment, and so the Lifehouse Volunteer Orchestra was born. It took one Facebook post and a couple of emails for our first event, Messiah in 2018, to have over 100 musicians (choir, orchestra & soloists) sign up.”

Vivaldi’s Gloria was the second project – once again, fully subscribed nearly overnight, through social media. Another Messiah is planned for the end of 2019. Artistic perfection in this instance gives way to the joy of communal music-making and receiving and Sarah recounts a tale from the first LVO pop-up Messiah. “One of the patients was a professional musician; her husband, also a musician, was constantly with her. I saw him several times as we were preparing for the performance. He expressed mild scepticism at our ability to do Messiah without any rehearsal.”

“Came the day, and they were both on the mezzanine, watching. There were plenty of stuff ups, all the usual things – missed entries, pitch wobbles… I went to visit the couple afterwards, back in her room. I hadn’t met her before and apologised for all the dodgy bits but they both cut me off short and wouldn’t hear a bad word about the performance. She looked straight at me and said “It was perfect. Just perfect.” I’ve redefined perfection a little since that day,” says Sarah.

Amongst the musicians were several medics, including 7 singers from DocsVox-NSW Doctor’s Choir. Overwhelmingly, their sentiments were that music can bring relief and joy in ways that medicine can’t. Sarah affirms “I don’t believe in ‘giving back’; for me, the phrase always conjures images of some heavenly ledger, or notions of sacrifice and obligation. Music is what I have to give, and I love giving it: making music for an audience that really wants it, with musicians who only turn up because they really want to. It’s how music should be.”

Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©



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