Restored to Glory: A musician’s perspective
Restored to Glory: A musician’s perspective

Standing at the convergence of Pitt and George streets next to Central Station, Christ Church St Laurence (CCSL) has been a centre of Anglo-Catholic worship since its foundation in 1845. Built during the Gothic Revival and the start of the Oxford Movement within the Anglican Church, the building and what happens inside it have been part of Sydney’s musical fabric for almost two centuries. At the church’s dedication in 1845, newspaper reports commented on the good order and dignity of the singing and from that point on, there has been a continuous choral tradition. In September 2018, I was honoured to be appointed as the parish’s Director of Music, succeeding the eminent and internationally respected church musician Dr Neil McEwan AM FRSCM. Neil had taken on the role in 1980 and during his tenure, hundreds of choristers have sung under his inspired direction.

Sam Allchurch. Photo supplied

CCSL boasts two choirs of about 20 singers each – one sings Solemn High Mass on Sunday mornings, the other Solemn Evensong on Sunday evenings. Between the two choirs, the repertoire spans from Gregorian chant through to specially commissioned works. For High Mass, the music draws on the richness of the Renaissance – Palestrina in Italy, Victoria in Spain and Byrd and Tallis in England, as well as the masses of Haydn and Mozart and 20th century compositions. For Evensong, the repertoire comes from the English cathedral tradition, with settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis texts by Stanford and Howells as well as Tudor composers such as Gibbons and Farrant. With the exception of eight choral scholars (university students and emerging artists), the choir is staffed by volunteers, who contribute their skill and time to prepare and sing this music every week of the year. CCSL’s choral tradition is distinctive and flourishing, drawing its singers and its listeners from all parts of Sydney and all walks of life.

The church building itself is similarly distinctive, perhaps most obviously for its unique combination of English gothic architecture with a striking Italianate fresco around the high altar, painted by Vergil Lo Schiavo in 1939. The Lo Schiavo fresco marks just one of the many artistic changes the building has undergone since its dedication: over its 174-year history, successive generations have added, subtracted, updated and refreshed the interior of the church.

Christ Church St Laurence. Photo supplied

In 2019, the church underwent its most significant restoration since the 1960s. While this had been discussed for many years, the push came from the current Rector, The Revd Dr Daniel Dries, who would go on to manage the project. Just after Easter, in early May, floor to ceiling scaffolding was erected in the church, so that this internal transformation could occur. The ceiling would be resealed and transformed from its 1960s hospital cream colour to a more Victorian and striking blue. The sandstone would be cleaned and repointed. The pews would be restored and coated in a rich shellac. The brass work would be cleaned, restored and lacquered and the lighting would be completely overhauled. The floor would be restained with a ‘Black Japan’ treatment and perhaps most significantly, underfloor heating and cooling would be installed to enable the church to remain at a reasonably consistent and comfortable temperature throughout the year.

During this process, the parish was faced with a number of options for its services, both those which were said (at least three per day) and those which were sung by the choir. Rather than decamping to the adjacent parish hall or another church or chapel, it was decided to stay in the church building and live through the renovations. For the musicians, this presented some significant challenges. CCSL boasts one of the finest pipe organs in the country, an 1892 William Hill and Sons instrument (in many ways a miniature version of the magnificent instrument in the Sydney Town Hall). To protect it during the four-month restoration process, the organ was carefully wrapped in plastic and lay silent. In its place, an electronic organ was hired to ensure that choral accompaniment and congregational singing could be maintained.

The second principal challenge was the total disappearance of our acoustic, on account of the scaffolding. CCSL enjoys a warm and resonant acoustic with just enough reverberation – and so without this, we were left feeling high and dry. To their credit, the singers turned this into an opportunity and together we worked to deepen our listening and extend our vocal technique to deliver beautiful music. A well balanced and in-tune chord will always sound louder and more resonant than one which lacks internal structure and whilst a resonant and reverberant acoustic can give an impression of one, a genuine legato line is created solely by the singers. So in the midst of metal poles and dust, the Choir of CCSL got on with the job of a choral bootcamp, even managing to smile for most of the time!

Christ Church St Laurence. Photo supplied

On the first of day of Spring, the wait was over. The choir and congregation returned to their home to discover the most incredible transformation. Years of inner-city grime had been stripped away and a colour scheme of which the Victorian architects would have been proud appeared. The new lighting revealed both the true scale of the building and its intricate detail. And for the musicians, both the acoustic and the organ came back, with perhaps just a little more resonance. As the choir paused at the conclusion of the final chords of Howells’s Gloria (Collegium regale) and Stanford’s Magnificat, and heard the sound linger in the air for just a moment, the collective smile was irrepressible.

Last week, after the final touches had been completed, the church was rededicated to the glory of God on the 174th anniversary of its original dedication. The splendour of the building was matched by the choir and ensemble in residence, The Muffat Collective, who performed Mozart’s glorious Coronation Mass. And because just occasionally more is more, the Choir of CCSL will present a dedication concert on Sunday September 29 at 3PM, performing Charpentier’s magnificent Te Deum H 146 and Vivaldi’s much-loved Gloria RV 589. In the heart of central Sydney, there stands a church now painstakingly restored and a choral tradition that continues to fill it with beautiful music from across the ages, open to all.

Sam Allchurch conducts the Choir of Christ Church St Laurence and The Muffat Collective on Sunday September 29, 3PM