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Hard Knocks Big Hit

Choir of Hard Knocks on record and in Sydney.

Hard Knocks Big Hit

By Diana Simmonds

The last episode screened last night (Tuesday, June 12) and, like the rest of the series, Choir of Hard Knocks proved to be one of those rarest of events: a heartbreaker and heartwarmer, all wrapped up in one inspirational idea. And a sleeper hit for the ABC.

If you watched the series (which will be repeated) you can skip this next paragraph. If you didn't, you'll need to know that leader Jonathan Welch is the former tenor whose work with the VSO, OA and other state companies spanned 70 roles and a singing lifetime. These days he's a conductor and deeply committed community and youth music educator whose latest scheme is now a national phenomenon - the choir that has brought together members of Melbourne's underclass - the unfortunate, the unlucky, the unwell and the unloved - the people our great society has left behind.

"It's quite confronting," Welch said, on the phone from Melbourne. He wasn't talking about the choir but about the sudden public recognition the program has afforded him. "People tap me on the shoulder at the airport or in the street. I'm not used to it," Welch explains.

What he is used to is the long months of hard work and uncertainty that went into the choir before it suddenly became an overnight success. Hard Knocks now has a bestselling CD in the charts, but it didn't just happen.

"Repertoire is important," Welch agrees. "What I decided at the beginning was to work from fairly middle of the road material because the age range is late teens to 60s and it had to be music that most would know or have heard. That way it built confidence because they could start singing right away."

Fans of the TV show will recall the process Welch went through to persuade damaged and suspicious people, more used to unkindness than encouragement, to come together to rehearse and to audition to find soloists and to work out who could cope and how.

"It's not like any choir I've ever worked with," Welch says. "I decided we had to do easier stuff and do it really, really well. It was a gradual build - getting to know them and their voices. The auditions were harrowing, though it was like discovering gold."

And a rewarding and extraordinary experience for ABC TV audiences as the disparate elements became real live people with personalities, foibles and fancies and Welch was seen in varying states of elation and despair as the rollercoaster he had set in motion careered along.

"It was an amazing thing," Welch says. "The trust that happened, for them to decide to share their voices and gifts. I cried every week!"

One would have to be irretrievably hardhearted not to join him: aloe vera tissues have been a Tuesday night essential over the past weeks of the series. Listening to the album too - particularly the bittersweet Leonard Cohen song that is now the most famous choir song in Australia and a radio favourite.

Choir of Hard Knocks"Someone was saying they should stop playing it during drivetime because it's a traffic hazard - all these people driving home weeping," says Welch of Hallelujah, the choir's unofficial anthem.

"It can be interpreted so many different ways," says Welch of the song. "We spent an hour talking through the lyrics when we first started. Everyone had a different interpretation, but for many of them, it was as if they had found a song about their lives - 'Am I not pretty enough? Is my heart too broken?' - I can tell you I am so proud of them all. And I still weep every day."

Choir of Hard Knocks on ABC Records, live at Melbourne Town Hall on June 24 and at the Sydney Opera House on July 17, ph: 02 9250 7777.

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