Wollongong's chamber orchestra Steel City Strings is the subject of a new documentary

Just three times a year a group of people make beautiful music together. Their energy, passion and commitment to their craft will be told through cinema in 2018, writes DESIREE SAVAGE.

When Tony Williams first heard about Steel City Strings he said he was quite “fearful” because he expected them to be just another amateur music group.

The acclaimed director has been spoilt for choice with professional concerts as his father was the manager of an opera company, his mother and sister both sang, he married a viola player, while his sister-in-law was the principal cellist in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

But the not-for-profit little regional chamber orchestra made up of musicians from the Illawarra, Southern Highlands and Shoalhaven made a grand impression.

“I had no idea what I’d be in for. When I heard them they totally blew me away,” Williams said.

“It’s in their dedication, they don’t want to just play for a good time and just to fill in a few hours as a hobby, they really want to achieve the higher standard they’re capable of and they’re supported by the management.”

Williams attributed their sleek professional sound to the direction and vision by the group’s leader, Kyle Little, a man he believes they adore and aim to please.

“Musicians can sometimes be a bitchy lot. They can be backstabbing, they can be dedicated to unionism, they can be difficult people,” Williams said.

“This orchestra is like a family - they support each other enormously, they look after each other and they can’t wait to get together for their rehearsals and it’s just so unique to see such a united group.”

The filmmaker felt compelled to do more than film a few concerts as good will so set out to chronicle their story in the form of a documentary, which is finally on the way to the big screen.

The Passion of Music is the culmination of nearly two years of Williams following the group and capturing their energy with a camera.

The 76 minute feature will have its debut in February at Event Cinemas in Wollongong, with the hope its audience leaves with a better appreciation for how music can change lives.

THE BEGINNING

Steel City Strings was born in 2004 and made its concert debut on May 21 of that year. It was put together by passionate amateur violinist Yve Repin who formed the group by inviting personal and professional contacts she had throughout the region.

Chamber music is different to the sound of a large symphony as it is composed for a small group of instruments - such as this group which had 18 players as opposed to a symphony which may have around 50.

The group lasted until late 2005 before disbanding. They were reincarnated by violinist Kyle Little in 2014. The high school music teacher had been one of the few local musicians employed by the Wollongong Symphony Orchestra (WSO) which took the place of SCS until 2011.

Only a small percentage of WSO talent came from the region so Little wanted that to change when resurrecting the chamber with other original members.

Aside from playing beautiful classic and contemporary music to the region, another key element of SCS is to mentor and develop the talents of young players through coaching and providing opportunities to perform.

Kyle Little, Monique Ziegelaar, Joanna Landstra and Michael Barkl. Picture: Dom O'Donnell

Kyle Little, Monique Ziegelaar, Joanna Landstra and Michael Barkl. Picture: Dom O'Donnell

MONIQUE’s STORY

Violinist Monique Ziegelaar has been with the SCS since before day one when she used to play in a quartet with Yve Repin.  Psychologist by day, she attests to the positive benefits playing a musical instrument and being part of a group has on the brain and said the effects of music have been studied for the last century.

Ziegelaar  said listening to music had a range of benefits of its own  (such as boosting mood)  while the physical practice of playing an instrument engaged every part of the brain.

“It improves your focus, it reduce stress ... it increases blood flow on the brain, it has a positive effect on your immune system because it reduces cortisol, it just goes on and on and on,” Ziegelaar said.

“There’s a really nice study - which is about vocalists but it’s about connection too - that shows when people sing in a group the level of oxytocin (which they call the cuddle hormone) is double in comparison to just hanging out with your friends. So it has a really fundamental positive influence on doing something collectively as a musician.”

Rock stars may grimace on stage and act nonchalant, but if you’ve ever seen classical musicians perform in public it is quite often the opposite. You can see the intensity in their faces when the crescendos become fierce, then broken with smiles and happy nods to each other throughout the performance.

“I believe that when an orchestra can think, feel and breathe together that’s when music is created. And as for Steel City Strings, we are doing that more and more with each concert series,” Ziegelaar said.

“Kyle is a fantastic violinist whose enthusiasm, warmth and caring are inspiring to others. He believes wholeheartedly in Steel City Strings and the potential of the group to continue to grow and that belief is shared by the players.”

Filmmaker Tony Williams. Picture: Supplied

Filmmaker Tony Williams. Picture: Supplied

ALEXANDRA’s STORY

Former music teacher Alexandra Zachery felt refreshed after joining SCS around two years ago, following years spent leading children’s groups and other community organisations.

Zachery, whose son Thomas also performs with the group, has studied multiple instruments and said being among such a high calibre group who were like-minded fed her hunger to create music.

“They’re just the loveliest people and I’ve been so grateful for the opportunity to spend time with them, they’re all so committed to making music at a high quality level,” she said.

“Considering you do six rehearsals and then two to three shows each quarter - without having regular rehearsals scheduled and stuff that a professional orchestra would - the quality is just astonishing and it’s just because everyone is so committed.”

Natural healing is another passion for Zachery who has just left her beloved orchestra for Peru. She’s part of a group opening a retreat centre near Machu Picchu which will offer music therapy, sound healing and other natural remedies.

“I have a firm belief that everything in the universe - and this is coming from my interest in science as much as my interest in spirituality - but I strongly believe that everything is vibration,” she said.

“You can have the soothing effect of a lullaby for a child or you can listen to music to alter your mood or you can make music .”

Through working in music education Zachery said she has seen first-hand the positive effects it has had on children, such as the change in behaviour of kids diagnosed with ADHD.

“Music education absolutely changes brain function positively,” she said. “And with the healing work we do with the shaman ... we sing and the singing actually moves people in energetic blocks. So there’s lots of different layers to that, from putting a bit of mozart on to relax right up to moving people’s insides.”

Steel City Strings leader Kyle Little in a scene from the 'Passion of Music' documentary.

Steel City Strings leader Kyle Little in a scene from the 'Passion of Music' documentary.

KYLE’s STORY

After the Wollongong Symphony Orchestra disbanded there was a lull for a few years until Campbelltown teacher Kyle Little decided to bring music to the ears of South Coasters once again.

He said he’d made connections with many great players in the region and felt it was the perfect time to resurrect chamber music

“There were many great players in the area and it seemed liked the perfect opportunity to bring chamber music back to the Illawarra,” he said.

“I feel very honoured to work with every single member of the orchestra. We all work together so well and push each other to improve and grow. This orchestra exists because of the dedication and hard work of its members, I am just one member of the greater whole.

“I hope that people learn from the stories from our orchestra members about the importance music education plays in our personal, social, intellectual and spiritual lives.”

The Passion of Music: Steel City Strings screens at Event Cinema’s in Wollongong, February 11. Bookings via www.trybooking.com