Both my parents were Jewish refugees who fled the horrors of the Second World War in Europe and went to Australia as young people desperate to make a better life. My father and his parents fled Berlin in the 1930s; my mother was less fortunate and survived the Holocaust in Belgium only thanks to a series of miracles and the courage of strangers. She and her sister were two of only a handful of children who survived in their neighbourhood.
When they eventually made the gruelling journey to Australia neither of my parents spoke any English. They had no money and little education. Both suffered the indignities of being at the bottom rung of society and the perils of a xenophobic culture in which their very existence was seen as a threat. Yet, in spite of these hurdles, they and their families worked incredibly hard to make and embrace a new life 'down under'.
It was only as an adult that I began to sense the impact of being the child of refugees. This took the form of some awareness of the transience and fragility of life and of the everyday securities that we take for granted. I also began to sense that the ultimate antidote to the pain and devastation that comes from being uprooted from one’s home lies in being welcomed as part of a community.
As a conductor, I feel that those in my profession have the potential to be community builders, to enable our love, joy and passion for music to build bridges where none have previously existed. There’s something about communal singing that reaches into the dawn of human history and speaks to us in a way that transcends many boundaries and enables something innately human to manifest itself – the sense of belonging, of sharing, of being part of a team and a bond of camaraderie. We breathe together, we pore over the music together, we harmonise and clash and struggle and work in the service of the song and yet, somehow, it all flows. We are left with a feeling that cannot be measured in any quantitative way but we know in our hearts that something in us has been profoundly shifted.
Choirs very quickly bring people together in ways that are both mundane and beautifully poetic. Whether it’s the tedious committee meetings and washing the tea cups, the arguing over the outfits and ticket sales, the endless debates over the choice of the music and the quality of the biscuits, millions of people all over the world put their differences aside because they know that the act of making music together for a couple of hours will allow them to transcend the usual slings and arrows of daily life. Choirs allow you to glimpse something that only becomes possible when done in a group, when you forgive your neighbour her trespasses and both act to serve the very simple cause that is making something beautiful and moving.
'Singing Our Lives' is the musical finale to Refugee Week. The concert came about because we thought it would be amazing to see what happened if we let the four walls around the usual choir rehearsal down a bit. We also wanted to see if we could explore what happened when we invited people who were not part of our usual music-making in to share the experience. The story of our times, that is, the plight of refugees and migrants in Europe was the thing that seemed to speak to everyone most deeply. The experience of working with people who have endured many of the evils of our society - torture, exodus, dispossession, alienation of the worst kind - has been one that I think has changed us all in ways both subtle and profound.
The concert, to be held on July 2 at Milton Court in London, is the culmination of years of discussion and work and music-making that has touched us all very deeply. Organisers, The Mixed Up Chorus and 3FF, have attracted support from many other organisations passionate about supporting refugees, from the UN Migration Agency, IOM, to the Migration Museum Project, as well as the Guildhall School’s Electronic Music Department and The Royal Opera House and their extraordinary work in Thurrock. These organisations perceive the incredible value the arts offer when it comes to integrating people and assisting them to feel they have a role in their new communities, and in expressing their needs when no one else will.
This project has enabled us to see that we are all immensely complex human beings, our layers of identity so deep and nuanced that to label it as one thing or another is almost degrading. The many stories we have encountered about our lives and the lives of the people who have helped us give birth to the new music we will be sharing have sometimes been very difficult to hear, but, overwhelmingly, we have heard stories of impossible courage and hope and miracles where none were expected.
I believe that all choirs are community choirs – or they have the potential to be anyway. It's such a simple thing to join a choir and find your unique voice, and what an opportunity to reach out to those who are dispossessed and say – hey, the biscuits are rubbish but you are welcome here, I’ll teach you my song if you teach me yours!
The International Organization for Migration, the UN’s official UK migration agency, is celebrating Refugee Week with a concert on Sunday, July 2. The benefit concert – entirely free – will feature the world premieres of two song-cycles from two community choirs that tell the real-life experiences of migrants and refugees, conducted by Jeremy Haneman. Featuring The Mixed Up Chorus, Freedom from Torture, London School Rhyl Primary and Royal Opera House Thurrock Community Chorus, the gala premiere combines voices from all around the world. For further information, and to reserve tickets, visit: gsmd.ac.uk