Their backgrounds are very different. From age eight to 17, Philip learned to play the violin, as well as choral singing. Music was also a family affair; Philip’s mum played the piano and his siblings all played instruments.
Bernadette began singing in the East Maitland parish choir with her Dad, Bill Lannen. As a professional vocalist, Bernadette has an eclectic vocal range including church, Celtic, classical and musical theatre.
Philip has a remarkable academic background. He graduated as a choral conductor, composer and organist from Sydney University and then studied at the Royal College of Music in London. He remained in the United Kingdom for seven years while he gained his Fellowship for the Royal College of Organists. Philip is especially proud of his tenure as Vice President of the Guild of Church Musicians (UK).
Meanwhile, Bernadette studied at the University of Newcastle and gained a degree in Speech Pathology. She was invited by the Community Stroke Team of Hunter New England Health to conduct a choir of stroke survivors, which presented an opportunity to research the influence of choral singing on recovery. “BrainWaves” now runs each week as a community choir at the Conservatorium. For the past few years Bernadette has been studying for her PhD in this area. It is a work in progress as life takes detours!
Philip gained the position of Director of Music at Christ Church Cathedral, hence his life-changing move to Newcastle. He teaches at the Conservatorium of Music and in the School of Creative Industries at the University of Newcastle. He founded and conducts the University of Newcastle Chamber Choir, now named Echology.
Bernadette and Philip eventually met through music, naturally! Bernadette says, “I knew Philip of course, I had seen him zipping around the Con.” To improve her singing she was advised to join a good choir. “I auditioned for the Chamber Choir.” Philip was the conductor. They were formally introduced by a friend, but Bernadette says, “I can’t remember it.” Not an auspicious beginning!
Philip’s Chamber Choir won the ABC Adult Choir of the Year in 2006. Bernadette joined the group later and was a member when the successful choir won the television competition, Battle of the Choirs, under Philip’s leadership. They became friends and as time passed they grew closer, marrying in April 2012.
Philip admits, “The Battle of the Choirs opened me out and I’ve kept on that path since then. Because of that competition, we got into Torres Strait Islander music. That has given me a whole new dimension of music making.” Philip met Toby Whaleboat, a Torres Strait Islander living in Newcastle. Toby left a deep impression on Philip, igniting a lasting friendship.
Later, Philip gave his students an option, “We can do some pop songs or I can bring my mate Toby and we can learn some Torres Strait Islander music.” They chose the latter, “So Toby came and taught us songs and that was a real journey.”
Each July the Matthias family travels to Townsville to join the Islander group celebrating a major TSI Christian historic event. Philip says, “It’s their sense of community and belonging and family….family is number one. They say to us that we are part of that.” They are both proud of their connection to the Torres Strait Islanders.
Philip has achieved huge success as founder and conductor of Echology. Under his direction the choir has toured internationally nine times, with Bernadette a member for many of those trips. In 2016, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous members travelled to New York and performed at the World Youth Assembly at the United Nations headquarters.
“The choir is going to Canada this year; we’re taking choir members plus ten Indigenous students. I’m really pleased, that’s the space I’m working with at the moment.” The students are from the Wollotuka Institute at the university.
The couple has individual musical pursuits but they create opportunities to work and enjoy those special moments together. “Philip often accompanies me at weddings.” They have also played on special occasions for friends and family and have written music together.
One of the goals they hope to achieve is collaborating on sacred and liturgical music. “Philip is a Catholic now, we have talked about writing a Mass; the music comes from the congregation, how can we contribute to that, writing hymns or pieces for community?” They would make it fresh and Australian. With Bernadette and Philip’s expertise, there’s a sense this will be a reality one day.
William and Thomas are used to having musical instruments throughout their home. There’s a keyboard, organ, piano, drums, shakers and William’s favourite, the ukulele. Thomas loves “bashing the drums”. With their next baby on the way, the musical potential of this incredibly talented couple is vast. Bernadette and Philip have music coursing through their veins; their offspring can’t possibly miss out!