Farewell to John Cran

One of the important elements that has made singing with the Grads and attending our concerts a special experience is the outstanding quality of the professional musicians, who regularly perform with us. This quality was personified in spades in John Cran, the legendary bassoonist, who sadly died in early April, aged ninety-two.

John spent a large majority of his 92 years, performing as principal bassoon with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. In his career with the SSO, he played under the great Eugene Goossens and with such important wind players as Charles Mackerras, who was an oboist with the orchestra before becoming a major conductor, and the distinguished flutist, Neville Amadio, whose playing was admired by visiting conductors such as Eugene Ormandy.

John’s love of music was such that, after retirement from the Sydney Symphony, he continued to perform regularly with us and with such organisations as the Willoughby Symphony Orchestra. The Choir is very fortunate that the musical skills of our Music Director, Christopher Bowen are such that we have been able to establish long-term links with John and other fine professional instrumentalists.

John’s personal style was unfailingly gentle, unassuming and professional.

It was always reassuring for us choristers to see him take up his position in the ranks of the woodwind section at our concerts. He did this regularly, including in our Sydney Sings performance of the Verdi Requiem in 2017, in which he performed on his ninetieth birthday. He also played the Principal Bassoon part in our Sydney Sings performance of A German Requiem of Brahms on November 2019. John was so closely identified with his beloved instrument that some of us used to think he looked rather like a bassoon. It is good to know that the Cran name will continue to be linked with the Choir through John’s bassoonist-daughter, Lucinda, who has already played in a number of our concerts.

Farewell, John Cran! We are honoured to have been able to share in your distinguished artistic life.

John Bowan

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Pandemic Arrangements

In the light of current circumstances we are – regrettably – unable to continue with the first two scheduled concerts of 2020, Handel’s Esther in May and Faure’s Requiem in August. Our current plan – to be confirmed in due course – is that these two concerts will be moved to May and August 2021.

We are still planning to go ahead in November 2020 with Sydney Sings™ Elijah in Sydney Town Hall with our orchestra and guest choir (more details here).

All 2020 subscribers will be contacted individually in the next week or two.

The choir will continue to have a number of outgoings during this period and so our choristers have been asked to pay their membership fees and give donations as usual. We will continue to be grateful for donations from all sources – these are tax-deductible. Details may be found here.

Thanks to all our audience in these difficult times. I hope that we shall be able to welcome you back to one of our concerts in the near future. In the meantime you may continue to listen to the choir on CD and periodically on the radio. In particular the choir’s recording of Saint-Saëns Messe de Requiem will be broadcast on Fine Music 102.5 on Sunday 26th April in Musica Sacra 9-10am.

Best wishes and stay safe

Jane Sinclair
President, Sydney University Graduate Choir

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2020 Concert Season

Our 2020 Concert Season features some of the best choral music ever written. We will take you on a musical journey through the ages and carry you away to ancient and exotic places. Expect a season of dramatic, lyrical and moving experiences, featuring landmark works such as Handel’s Esther and much loved masterpieces like Fauré’s comforting Requiem and Mendelssohn’s powerful Elijah.

Our first concert, in May, will carry you away to the ancient court of King Xerxes of Persia in Handel’s magnificent first oratorio, Esther. Follow the story of Esther, a Jewish orphan who wins the affection of the King and becomes the Queen of Persia, unmasking the treachery of Prime Minister Haman to save the Jewish people from a horrible fate. This landmark work was so successful, it marked the birth of the English oratorio and includes beautiful dramatic and lyrical movements, ending with a grandiose final chorus only Handel could have written.

In August we invite you to leave the hectic world behind and immerse yourself in the heavenly music of Fauré’s peaceful Requiem and Schubert’s gentle Stabat Mater. Fauré’s tranquil Requiem is dominated by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest without the terrifying description of the Last Judgement. Schubert’s beautiful Stabat Mater, based on a free German translation, places Christ’s love and the promise to “inherit the joy of paradise” at the centre of the contemplation. Enjoy an uplifting and comforting afternoon.

Mendelssohn’s powerful and dramatic masterpiece about the Old Testament prophet Elijah, is the perfect finale for our 2020 concert series. Experience the drama between Elijah and Queen Jezebel, the contest between Baal and God and the vivid imagery of Elijah’s ascent to heaven in a fiery chariot. The work was an instant triumph. While strongly influenced by Bach’s and Handel’s oratorios, its lyricism and use of orchestral and choral colours reflect Mendelssohn‘s own great genius.

All of these concerts will be conducted by Music Director Christopher Bowen OAM, with a full orchestra. The first two will take place in the Great Hall at the University of Sydney, the final concert will be in Sydney Town Hall.

For full details please download your 2020 subscription brochure here. We look forward to seeing you.

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Rheinberger – A Christmas Concert

At 5pm on Sunday, 8 December, the Sydney University Graduate Choir, conducted by its Music Director, Christopher Bowen OAM, will present a concert of German Christmas works in the Great Hall of the University.  The soloists will be Elke Hook (soprano) and David Hidden (bass).

The Christmas festival plays a very important role in German culture, with Christmas markets flourishing in town squares all over the country, Christmas angels decorating public spaces and private homes, and favorite Christmas food and drink helping to spread good cheer.

The larger of the two German works we are performing, Der Stern von Bethlehem Op 164 (the Star of Bethlehem), subtitled a Christmas Cantata for Choir, Soloists and Orchestra, is by Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger (1839-1901). It  tells the Christmas story in loving and picturesque detail. Rheinberger  had a career in Munich, as an important organist, teacher and composer in the late nineteenth century.

The composition of The Star of Bethlehem was a labour of love for Rheinberger.  His wife, Franziska ‘”Fanny” von Hoffnaass, was a widely cultured person and gifted poet, whose texts he frequently set to music, as is the case with this work.  Composed in 1890, The Star of Bethlehem is a  lyrical and moving account of the Christmas story in nine scenes. In the movement, Der Stern (The Star), for example, the music conveys the trot of the camels, the arrival of the wise men in Jerusalem, their despair at the temporary disappearance of the star and their joy when it reappears and settles over the stable in Bethlehem.

Rheinberger’s work will make a  charming and rewarding launch of the Christmas season.

The other German work on the program is the Weihnachts Ouvertuere (Christmas Overture) of Otto Nicolai (1810-1849).  This is a stirring, impressive product of the early Romantic age (composed in 1833) but it takes the listener back to a much earlier times, as it is a setting of the chorale, Vom Himmel Hoch, with words and music by Martin Luther.  In English. Vom Himmel Hoch means from Heaven above.

In recent times, the Choir has performed a number of works by Nicolai and has found them to be very pleasing.  The  Weihnachts Ouvertuere is no exception.

In addition to the German works, the program will also include a number of Christmas carols.


John Bowan

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Sydney Sings…™ Brahms A German Requiem

On Sunday, 10 November, at 3.00 pm, in the Sydney Town Hall, the Sydney University Graduate Choir, conducted by its Music Director, Christopher Bowen OAM, will present, as its  Sydney Sings…™ concert for 2019,  music of Johannes Brahms, featuring his wonderful Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), and also including an orchestral work of the composer, his Tragic Overture Op. 81.

Ein Deutsches Requiem was Brahms’s first major success with the public.  As with many of his works, it was composed over many years. At the beginning of the process, the death in tragic circumstances in 1856 of his friend and mentor, Schumann, was an important stimulus.  The loss of his mother in 1865 also left a deep impression on him.  In that year, he sent the first four movements to Clara, Schumann’s widow, remarking that he was thinking of composing “a kind of German Requiem”.

The first performance of the work in its final, seven-movement form took place in Leipzig in February 1869.  

Although Brahms called the work a “requiem”, he does not use the Catholic liturgy but takes as his text various readings from Luther’s translation of the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha; the “German” of the title essentially makes the linguistic contrast with the traditional Latin Requiem.  The work’s message is one of consolation for those who survive the dead , rather than emphasizing the life to come of the dead themselves.

Throughout, Brahms succeeds in finding words of uncommon emotional beauty and power.  For a century and a half, audiences have shared Clara Schumann’s enthusiasm for the work, which she expressed to Brahms in 1867: “Your Requiem is an immense piece that takes hold of a person’s whole being like very little else.  The profound seriousness, combined with all the magic of the poetry, has a wonderful, deeply moving and soothing effect”. While the music conveys a strong spiritual feeling, it seems that the composer himself did not actually believe in the after-life; he commented at one point that he would have liked to call the work a “human” requiem, and resisted pressure from friends to include any reference to the redemptive death of Christ.  Although Brahms writes passages of great drama and force, particularly in No. 6, “Denn wir haben hie, keine bleibende Statt” (“For we have here no lasting state”), when the Last Trump resounds with a truly shattering blast, the message of A German Requiem is fundamentally one of consolation and comfort for those who mourn the dead.

Ein Deutsches Requiem is a moving and profound work and a masterpiece of the choral repertoire. As with previous concerts in the Sydney Sings…™ series, the Choir will be joined by some 100 guest choristers from other choirs around Sydney and New South Wales. The soloists will be Amy Moore (soprano) and Simon Lobelson (baritone), both of whom have international experience.

Our program also includes a short orchestral work of Brahms, the Tragic Overture Op. 81.  It dates from later in the composer’s life, 1880.  The overture is not lugubrious in feeling but severe and grim and has the character of the first movement of a dramatic symphony.  Along with A German Requiem, it is a worthy example of the mature mastery of the music of Johannes Brahms.


John Bowan

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Guest Choristers for Sydney Sings™ Brahms ‘A German Requiem’

On November 10th Sydney University Graduate Choir and Orchestra will be performing Brahms ‘A German Requiem’ in the magnificent setting of Sydney Town Hall. This concert is part of the choir’s Sydney Sings™ concert series, and will include a large guest choir.

Over 100 guest choristers have already signed up for this event but the Town Hall is large, so we can accommodate a few more for any part including sopranos and altos, and in particular tenors and basses. Those who have sung this work before, and all experienced choristers, are most welcome.

Brahms ‘A German Requiem’ is a beautiful work, with a combination of text and music that places it among a handful of the leading great works in the choral canon.

Register here to sing with us, and your friends and family can purchase tickets here.

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Your Joan Carden Award Finalists for 2019!

We are presenting three wonderful soloists for your enjoyment and deliberation – two sopranos, Jessica Blunt and Sandra Liu, and a baritone, Tristan Entwistle. On Sunday August 11th at 3pm, the first half of our concert will feature each of these talented young singers performing two pieces, accompanied by our orchestra conducted by Christopher Bowen OAM.

The main Award, with a prize of $6000, will be judged by a panel led by opera legend Joan Carden OA OBE herself, along with the great Australian baritone Geoffrey Chard AM and Christopher Bowen.

There will also be a ‘Peoples’ Choice Award’ presented on the basis of a vote of audience members. So you will be able to have your say!

Soprano Jessica Blunt will be performing the aria ‘Come scoglio’ from Mozart’s ‘Così fan tutte’ and ‘Nun eilt herbei’ from Otto Nicolai’s ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’.

Jessica is currently completing the Master of Music Studies (Opera Performance) after graduating with a Bachelor of Music Performance (Voice) at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, studying with Maree Ryan AM. A recipient of the Diane Wishart and Elizabeth ‘Bud’ Brown scholarships, and the Patricia Lucas Music Achievement Award, Jessica has performed in ConOpera’s productions of Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tiresias (Thérèse), Mozart’s Don Giovanni (Donna Elvira), and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges (Le Feu). Jessica was also twice awarded the Henderson Traveller’s Scholarship, and performed in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (La Contessa) at the 2018 Mediterranean Opera Studio & Festival in Sicily, and Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (First Lady) at the 2019 Manhattan Opera Studio, New York. Whilst in New York, she performed in BareOpera and 360-Degrees-of-Opera’s pop-up concerts in Central Park and Bryant Park for the Sing For Hope Foundation, and in 2017 performed in a series of chamber music concerts as part of the ESTIVO program in Verona, Italy.

Locally, Jessica is a regular soloist for St Mary’s Cathedral’s ‘Red Mass’ (2017-19), performed in Operantic’s season of Strauss’ Die Fledermaus (Ida), and in their original cabaret for the Sydney Fringe Festival, and was awarded 3rd place in the JSRB Foundation’s inaugural Sydney Song Prize, adjudicated by Maestro Richard Bonynge. In October, Jessica will perform ‘Arminda’ in ConOpera’s season of Mozart’s La Finta Giardiniera. Most recently, as part of the Manhattan Opera Studio, Jessica was thrilled to perform as a soloist at their opera gala in the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York City.

Soprano Sandra Liu’s competition pieces will be ‘Padre, germani, addio’ from Mozart’s ‘Idomeneo’ and Offenbach’s ‘Elle a fui, la tourterelle’ from ‘The Tales of Hoffmann’.

Sandra is a young soprano currently in her first year in the Masters of Music Studies (Opera Performance) at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, the University of Sydney. She has been awarded the Helen Myers Scholarship for singing by the University of Sydney and is a Soprano Scholar at St. Stephen’s Uniting Church. She has recently performed as ‘La Chauve-Souris’ in Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges with the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. During her Bachelor of Music (Performance) in Voice, she performed in SCM’s productions of Les Mamelles de Tirésias, Bernstein Mass in the Sydney Opera House, as well as Opera Carnevale’s Mahogonny Songspiel and Pagliacci in both Wollongong and Sydney.

Upcoming engagements include the roles of ‘Micaëla’ in Bizet’s Carmen and ‘Lisette’ in La Rondine by Puccini with the Mediterranean Opera Studio. She will also be performing the role of ‘Ramiro’ in Mozart’s La Finta Giardiniera with the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

International experience includes performing as a soloist in concert with the Heilongjiang Opera company and the Thüringer Symphoniker Orchester, as well as the role of ‘Ida’ in Lyric Opera Studio of Weimar’s production of Die Fledermaus. Participation in vocal and lieder masterclasses at the Mozarteum, in Salzburg, Austria in their Summer Academy have also added important experience and insights.

She has performed for Art Gallery NSW’s National 2017: New Australian Art biennale as a part of a sculptural installation – futurist opera for Sydney Contemporary in ‘A Sonorous Body’ and ‘A Metal Cry’ by Justene Williams, in association with Carriageworks and the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Sandra is also an Artist/Presenter for Get Arty, a children’s program on the Seven Network.

Baritone Tristan Entwistle’s chosen pieces are ‘Hai gia vinta la causa’ from Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’ and ‘L’orage s’est calme’ from Bizet’s ‘The Pearl Fishers’.

Sydney born Entwistle recently completed a Masters of Music Studies (Opera Performance) at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music under the tutelage of Ms Maree Ryan AM, where he was awarded the Bud Brown Memorial and Patricia Lucas Music Achievement Scholarships.

Tristan’s operatic roles include Escamillo (Carmen), Papageno (Die Zauberflöte), Guglielmo (Così fan tutte), Leporello (Don Giovanni), Nardo (La Finta Giardiniera), Barone Douphol (La Traviata), Dottor Grenvil (La Traviata), Dr Falke (Die Fledermaus), Elder McLean (Susannah), Edmund Bertram (Mansfield Park), Old Yue (Chang’E and the Moon), Giove (La Calisto), the Drunken Poet/Corydon (The Fairy Queen), Alcindoro (La Traviata), Old Man/Husband (Miss Brill) and Giuseppe Palmieri (The Gondoliers).

With a passion for new music, Tristan has been involved in a number of Australian premieres, including Mansfield Park (Dove), Miss Brill (Hoadley), Chang’E and the Moon (Fox), Gentlemen’s Island (Horovitz – Director/MD), and Luzifers Tanz (Stockhausen).

Tristan is a founding member and artistic advisor to Operantics, with whom he has been a performer, director, composer and conductor. Most recently he performed the part of Christus in Bach’s St Matthew Passion, for which he was also chorusmaster.

Tristan was a finalist in the 2017 German Australian Opera Grant, and in the 2018 IFAC Handa Australian Singing Competition (“The Mathy”). He currently performs with the Opera Australia chorus.

And as if this wasn’t enough talent for one afternoon, there’s more! The second half of the concert will feature our choir performing Puccini’s ‘Messa di Gloria’, with soloists Simon Kim (Tenor) and Adrian Tamburini (Bass). See our previous post about Adrian Tamburini here.

Tickets for this wonderful concert are available online today!


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Gossec’s Messe des Morts – Concert Reflections

On Sunday, 5 May, the Choir presented its first subscription concert of the 2019 season, the Australian premiere of the Messe des Morts (Requiem) of the little-known François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829).

The initiative for the choice of this work came from the Choir’s Immediate Past President, Jackie Rotenstein (sop), who had heard and been impressed by it during researches into less well-known composers.  This turned out to be an inspired choice, as Christopher Bowen, the choristers and, importantly, the Great Hall audience were all much taken by Gossec’s music, despite never having heard it before and in many cases not having heard the composer’s name at all.

Throughout, Gossec conveys a strong impression of knowing what he wants to do and a sure-footed sense of how to do it.  He is technically accomplished and produces some brilliant fugues that stretch the capacity of the Choir.  The influence of the Mannheim school makes itself felt in some of the soprano arias, which could almost be by Mozart. Gossec’s love of spectacular sound effects is strongly on show, not least in the dramatic timpani solo, which opens the work, and later in the Berlioz-like off-stage wind band, which comes into its own in the Tuba Mirum.

An additional pleasure the Choir had from doing the work was the experience of using the French pronunciation of Latin (le Latin Gallican), as taught to us by our resident French linguist, Annette Lemercier (sop).  An audience member told me that she could identify some of the sounds of this in the performance, so Annette’s work paid off..

An excellent quartet of soloists joined us for the concert – Anita Kyle (soprano), Keara Donohoe (alto), Matthew Reardon (tenor) and Christopher Richardson (baritone) – and sang outstandingly. The smallish orchestra was led by Alastair Duff Forbes as Concertmaster and included such regular players of ours as Heather Burnley and Inge  Courtney- Haentjes (violin), Michelle Urquhart (viola), John Benz (cello), Paul Laszlo (double bass), Bronwen Needham (flute), the legendary John Cran (bassoon), Graham Nichols (horn), Melanie McLoughlin and David Pye (trumpet), Michael Wyborn (trombone) and Steve Machamer (timpani), who went to town on the opening solo mentioned above.

Perhaps put off by the unpredictable weather, the Great Hall audience was down in numbers. but included our admired Patron, Professor the Hon. Dame Marie Bashir AD CVO, whose support for and interest in the Choir are so appreciated, Joan Carden AO OBE, who continues to give her name and time to the Joan Carden Award, the singing competition organized by the Choir, and distinguished baritone, Geoffrey Chard AM, who has acted as a judge of the Award on a number of occasions.  New President, Ken Dray, made a short, warm welcoming speech before the start of the work and hosted a post-concert reception in the University Senate Room for VIPs, soloists etc.

The audience loved Gossec’s Requiem and, from the risers, one could feel their attention and interest gripped to the end.  The applause was generous and sustained and the comments afterwards enthusiastic.  There was a feeling that this composer and work represent a real find.  We will await with interest the results of Greg Ghavalas’s recording, to see how far we might be able to spread the results of our find.  At all events, we can feel gratified that our 2019 concert season has kicked off on a very positive note.


John Bowan

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Gossec’s Messe des Morts

François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829) was a highly original composer, difficult to classify, because his career straddled the Baroque and classical eras. Gossec played an important role in French musical life for more than 50 years.

He was born in a province of what a century later was to become Belgium. After childhood studies in his native area, including violin, keyboard and composition, and a stint as a chorister at Antwerp Cathedral, Gossec went to Paris in 1751, where he was to spend the rest of his life, becoming a protégé of the great French Baroque master, Jean Philippe Rameau. In Paris, Gossec also became close to Johann Stamitz, the famous musician of the Mannheim School, which played an important role in the development of the classical style.

In 1769, he founded the Concert des Amateurs, where he was the first to introduce Haydn’s symphonies to Parisian audiences. From the 1760s, he composed a substantial series of stage works and became an ally of Gluck, the great composer for the stage, who straddled the Baroque and early Romantic eras and was an inspiration for the ultra-romantic, Hector Berlioz. In 1784, Gossec was appointed head of the Ėcole Royale de Chant, which became the Conservatoire de Musique in 1795.

The Revolution of 1789 saw Gossec emerge to the forefront of musical activity in France and he became one of the official musicians of the new regime. He helped create a ‘civic music’, in which songs, choruses, marches and wind symphonies, designed for outdoor performance, served as the voice of the new regime. His Te Deum, for example, was performed on 14 July 1790 by 1,000 choristers and a very large orchestra with 300 wind instruments alone. He is also the author of the first orchestration of the Marseillaise.

With the ascension of Napoleon in 1799, Gossec’s career as a composer was effectively ended. In 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, the Conservatoire was closed for some time by Louis XVIII and the eighty-one year old composer had to retire. He was supported by a pension granted by the Conservatoire and lived in the Paris suburb of Passy, where he died in 1829, in his mid-nineties.

The Gossec work performed by the Choir today, the Messe des Morts (Requiem), was composed in 1760, apparently without a commission, the first of many religious works. The first performance was given in May 1760 at the Jacobins’ Church in the Rue Saint-Jacques. It is not clear if this first performance was for a religious service or a concert. We believe that our performance today is the Australian premiere of this extraordinary work.

Gossec reveals his contrapuntal skills in two large-scale fugues on Et lux perpetua in the Introit and the Communion and in the Amen on a plain-chant subject in the Pie Jesu concluding the Dies Irae sequence.

The fortissimo entry announcing the Last Judgement in the Tuba Mirum was the most remarkable and overwhelming effect noted by listeners in the eighteenth century and continues to be so. In a note published many years after the event, Gossec recalled the following audience response to the Tuba Mirum at a performance of the work in 1784 in the St. Eustache Church in Paris:

The audience was alarmed by the dreadful and sinister effect of the three trombones together with four clarinets, four trumpets, four horns and eight bassoons hidden in the distance and in a lofty part of the church, to announce the Last Judgement, while the orchestra expressed terror with a muted tremolo in all the strings.

In his love of spectacular sound effects, Gossec may be seen as a pathfinder for the great Berlioz.

John Bowan

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Joan Carden Award 2019 – Applications open

Applications are currently open – closing April 26th – for entries for this year’s Joan Carden Award.

Conducted with the gracious support of Miss Joan Carden AO OBE, this Award aims to:

  • identify and encourage young singing talent
  • strengthen the Choir’s relationship with the University of Sydney and the Sydney music community, and
  • honour the contribution of Joan Carden to music in Australia

This year the finals of the 2019 Joan Carden Award will be held in the Great Hall of the University of Sydney on August 11th, accompanied by a full orchestra. The audience will once again participate in the judging through a ‘People’s Prize’.

If you enjoy the performances of the soloists at our concerts, this concert (which will also feature the Choir performing Puccini’s Messa di Gloria) is definitely a date for your diary. And if you are – or have a friend or relative who is – a young professional soloist, then this could be your/their chance to perform and to win a prestigious Award with a significant cash prize.

Young singers aged between 22 and 35 years are invited to become part of this exciting event! The Award has a cash prize of $6,000 and the opportunity to perform as a soloist in one of the Choir’s forthcoming concerts. Apply here – the closing date for applications is Friday April 26th 2019.

Joshua Oxley, Tenor

Following his success in winning the 2017 Joan Carden Award, tenor Joshua Oxley performed as a soloist at the Choir’s May 2018 performance featuring works by Mendelssohn and Nicolai, was a finalist in the City Of Sydney Opera Scholarship 2018 and has performed for Opera Australia as Bathasar Zorn in Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg and as Tamino in the Magic Flute. You can read more about previous winners here.

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