The Illawarra Singers – precursors of the Illawarra Choral Society – were established in 1947 by two young enthusiasts, Joyce and Norman Tonge, with sixteen singers drawn from their friends and pupils. Many of the sixteen were in the choir of Wollongong Methodist Church (now Wesley Church on the Mall). Care was taken “to obtain only the best voices for the choir, many of whom were able singers in their own right.” The group quickly became a driving force in musical development in the Illawarra.

By 1949 there were 40 singers – by then known as the Illawarra Choral Society (an incorporated not-for-profit association) – and in that year they performed Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Dvorák’s Stabat Mater, as well as winning prizes in the Wollongong and Sydney Eisteddfods.

When the Tonges left the district In 1951, the Society came under the baton and guidance of Harold Brissenden as musical director and Nada Brissenden as accompanist – both greatly loved by their choristers, and later affectionately known in Wollongong as “Mr and Mrs Music”. The ICS is honoured that its association with Nada Brissenden, now a Patron of the Society, continues to this day.

St Matthew Passion 1959
The Illawarra Choral Society sings St Matthew Passion by J.S.Bach 1959.

1954 saw the first combined choirs’ performances of Handel’s Messiah by the Choral Society, the Methodist Church choir, and singers from many other choirs in the district – a tradition maintained to this day, with guest choristers singing in the 2006 and 2011 performances of Messiah.

With 85 singers, the Society in 1959 gave the first performance in the Illawarra of Bach’s choral masterpiece, the Saint Matthew Passion. Three years later, there were two performances in the then Methodist church, with 100 voices in the choir. Astonishingly, nearly 500 people squeezed into the church; the reviews were ecstatic.

Under Harold Brissenden the Choral Society developed its repertoire, which currently ranges from the classic choral works through light opera to spirituals, show songs, folk songs and jazz. There have been only five subsequent musical Directors: Graham Russell 1964 (while the Brissendens were in Wagga), Rodney Hollands 1974-1975, Robert Smith 1975-1999, Houston Dunleavy 2000-2007, and since 2008 Meryl Jackson-Kew. Each has worked to expand the range of the repertoire and raise the levels achieved by the singers.

The accompanist is an essential person in a choral society. From Nada Brissenden to Keith Baxter, David Vance, Marnie Ruth Dunstan, Brett McKern, Pam Fisher, Lisa Baraldi, Tom Johnson, Jesse Pinazza and Gail Mear to our current accompanist Brenda Thomson, the ICS has been fortunate in attracting accompanists with great technical and professional skills.

The ICS is also proud to be able to attract professional singers as soloists, and over the years has featured many who went on to perform internationally, including Wendy de Beyer, Yvonne Minton, Raymond McDonald, Lauris Elms, Peter Seymour and locals Roy Jackson and Kevin Stumbles. The most recent to follow in their footsteps with international appearances include tenor Russ Ixer, sopranos Siobhan Patrick and Kate Wilmot, and mezzo Anna Dowsley. In July 2012 Anna, who has sung in France and Germany, won the prestigious Lady Fairfax New York Scholarship which provides $43,000 and the chance to study with New York’s best vocal, language and movement coaches.


Concert at Figtree Nursing Home
ICS sings at Figtree Nursing Home, 2011
Carols in Mall
ICS sings carols in the Mall, 2010

The Choral Society presents three concerts every year - at Easter, midwinter and Christmas. These performances tend to display different aspects of the Choral Society’s repertoire, Easter being sacred, Christmas traditional and midwinter more light-hearted. It has also become a tradition that in alternate years, the Christmas concert features Handel’s Messiah. This work, performed by the Choral Society, was the first choral work staged in the newly refurbished Wollongong Town Hall in both 1967, and again in 2011; the Choral Society also continues to perform occasionally in its birthplace, Wesley Uniting Church in the Mall.

Currently, the annual concerts are the Choral Society’s main focus, with the proceeds, in conjunction with member subscriptions, providing most of the funds to meet its running costs. However, it also sings by invitation on other occasions such as the annual Redkite fund-raising concert, Christmas in the Mall and in hospitals and senior citizens facilities.


Meryl Jackson-Kew - BMus, BEd, AMusA, ATCL, MMTA

Meryl Jackson-Kew Musical Director

Meryl is a professional music educator, conductor of choirs and orchestras and examiner with the Board of Studies.

She has directed and conducted the SBS Youth Training Orchestra and the Wollongong Youth Ensemble, and has conducted the San Antonio Youth Orchestra and the Cleveland Wind Orchestra on their Australian tours. She has also had the privilege of conducting the Poway/San Diego Orchestra when she toured the west coast of the USA with her String Ensemble from Figtree High School.

Meryl has been associated with the Illawarra Choral Society since she was a toddler listening to her dad, Roy Jackson, perform. She was a member of the society under the baton of Harold Brissenden, leaving only when further studies and travel in Europe beckoned. In 2008 she was honoured to take up the baton herself as the Musical Director and has conducted more than fifteen concerts with the Society.

Meryl has currently doing research work for her Doctorate through Griffith University, looking at the effects of chemotherapy on the singing voice and the design of vocalises to strengthen the voice.


Brenda Thomson - AMusA, LMusA, TC, MMTA

Brenda Thomson Accompanist

Brenda gained her AMusA at the age of sixteen and was well-known as a classical pianist. She remembers with particular delight playing in concertos written for three or four harpsichords or pianos. For thirteen years she and Eric Bryce directed David Jones’ Christmas choir, arranging carols to suit them.

Brenda returned to Wollongong Conservatorium at the age of 35 and gained her LMusA. She recalls fitting in frantic practice sessions while her daughter was at pre-school – the alternative being the three-year-old’s floor-thumping accompaniment under the grand piano.

Pushed by Jim Powell to take the music teachers’ course, Brenda soon became hooked on teaching and has remained so, always having a busy studio at home and for many years holding concurrent teaching positions at the Conservatorium and the Illawarra Grammar School. During her studies, analysing the works of JS Bach aroused her interest in his influence on jazz. She believes her students’ minds should be opened to more than one kind of music, and always includes jazz in their education.

Wesley Church on the Mall logo

Wesley Church
on the Mall

Wollongong University logo


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Dorothy Ebblewhite gratefully acknowledges the contribution of Ann Duffy to the information in this website. Ann has also provided links to learning materials for members. Lisa Enever, Glen Rixon and Richard Burnett have also allowed their photographs to be included.

© Dorothy Ebblewhite July 26 2012