Sydney-based conductor Michelle Leonard has made it her mission to give outback kids the chance to perform in a professional concert once a year. In Lisa Nicol’s documentary Wide Open Sky, an Audience Award winner at last year’s Sydney Film Festival, we see Leonard travelling to primary schools in tiny NSW towns to hold the annual auditions for her Moorambilla Voices choir. The children, most of whom can’t read music, have to attend a three-day camp to learn new pieces by young Australian composers, in preparation for a gala performance with a professional chamber ensemble. Nicol homes in on kids from Lightning Ridge, Grawin and Brewarrina, ranging from the small-town girl with dreams of country music stardom to the plucky little indigenous footy champ who’s in it because he’s basically game for anything. Then there’s Mack, the sensitive boy who practises ballet on the corrugated iron roof of his home, who clearly feels like an outsider in his remote opal mining town and clutches at the Moorambilla opportunity like it’s a lifeline.
Leonard’s steely determination to include every capable child who wants to take part regardless of their ability to cover the cost, and her tough-but-fair approach to training up her young singers to a professional standard, are an inspiration to behold. There’s gritty humour in the project’s logistics, such as when a camp volunteer advises the kids what to do if they wet their bed, and a climactic performance that’s heart-tugging stuff. Nicol matches the landscape-themed music the kids are learning (composed by 21-year-old wunderkind Alice Chance) with sublime visuals of rural towns and the bush – but it’s the sight of kids having their horizons expanded that uplifts the most. Nick Dent