Jail Birds

Voices from Inside

Jonathon Welch, director

ABC Classics 476 3689

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Knowing the circumstances under which this recording was made, it is very difficult to listen to it without being moved. Here is a ‘good news’ story about a choral director with a vision and the determination to make it a reality.

All the singers in this ensemble are convicted criminals who are – or have been – serving sentences. Welch has done wonders with his choristers, not all of whom would have been trained musicians.

There are precedents for this ie in relation to obtaining vocal excellence from singers who might be musically illiterate eg the Eoan Group Opera Company in Cape Town. Through the vision and staying power of Joseph Manca, so called “coloured’ folk, who by virtue of their skin colour were declared non-white (an odious term of the apartheid government then in power) and so barred from entry to the city’s fine opera house, had their day in the sun.

Manca, with a near-saintly dedication to the job (for which he never drew a salary of any kind)  taught each vocal part parrot fashion – in the original Italian – and the results, after scores of piano rehearsals, were astonishingly professional. I can testify to the success of this initiative as I was the piano repetiteur as a very young man. The end result, drawing capacity audiences and adulatory reviews, was extraordinary and the most eloquent of rebuffs to the apartheid czars. In the most moving sense, this was a triumph over adversity.

Much the same could be said of this recording, another instance of a leader with vision and determination – and the whole-hearted co-operation of the singers proving the sceptics wrong. Performances like this don’t fall from the sky. The project would have been a non-starter without the determination and staying power of all concerned, including a co-operative officialdom.

These tracks are impressive; they deserve to be heard by the widest possible audience. It’s a thoroughly commendable offering. Listen to it; it’s heartwarming stuff – and for all the right reasons.

A percentage of royalties from the sale of this recording goes to the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne.

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