Dr Sarah Penicka-Smith

2023 Associate Conductor

A passionate advocate for music as a force for change, Dr Sarah Penicka-Smith is a unique and innovative voice in Australian music, who thrives working across genres & disciplines. A conductor from Western Sydney with a socially-engaged arts practice, she is dedicated to giving a platform to artists whose voices are missing from the mainstage.

Currently Sarah is the Artistic Director & Principal Conductor of River City Voices, a symphonic choir for Western Sydney combining access to major choral classics with telling local stories. Pioneering programs from 2022 include ‘What The World Needs’, an album of choral arrangements of work by the neurodiverse musicians of Club Weld, and ‘Slam Messiah’, where Handel’s masterwork meets performance poets. Sarah is also the first Associate Conductor of Willoughby Symphony Orchestra, where her work has included collaborating on the Young Composer Award, and contemporary music programs with physical theatre company Legs On The Wall. In 2022, Sarah was also one of the four inaugural CASE Incubator artist residents, for contemporary artists with a socially engaged practice.

Sarah is an alumna of the 2018 Hart Institute for Women Conductors at The Dallas Opera, with whom she made her international debut. Sarah’s opera credits include Purcell’s The Fairy Queen (the first opera staged by a queer choir, Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir, 2009) & Dido & Aeneas (Macquarie Singers, 2017), Korie & Wallace’s Harvey Milk (Left Bauer/SGLC 2015), Phillip Glass’s Akhnaten (Ondine Productions, 2013), Campra’s Tancrede (2010), Cummins’ Anacreontea (2011) and Timor (2015), Krasa’s Brundibar (2014), Leon’s Monsoon (2015) and Menotti’s The Medium (2015), all with Opera Prometheus.

Under the banner of Penicka-Smith Arts & Event Management, Sarah and her wife Melanie Penicka-Smith run Pacific Pride Choir, a touring choir founded to travel to regions where LGBTQIA+ rights may be legalised, but not accepted. They have toured to Poland, Vietnam and Cambodia. The Penicka-Smiths are both founding members of the Global Alliance of Queer Choirs, and together began the Lifehouse Volunteer Orchestra, bringing music to patients and their families at the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, a Sydney oncology hospital. They are currently developing ‘OCDiva’, a one-woman opera with mezzo-soprano Yasmin Arkinstall and composer Eve Klein, about Yasmin’s experiences living with OCD.

Sarah has conducted many Sydney orchestras, including Penrith Symphony Orchestra, Ku-ring-gai Philharmonic Orchestra and Sydney Youth Orchestra. From 2005-2017, she was the longest-serving Music Director of the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir, and for eleven years she was Director of Music and Head of Creative Arts at St Andrew’s College, and Principal Conductor with the Macquarie Singers & Macquarie Chamber Orchestra. Sarah chorusmasters for a range of ensembles and festivals, including Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, and conducted all four years of ABC Sydney’s ‘Sing Out Sydney’ event.

As part of the Symphony Australia Conductor Development Program (2012-2015), Sarah worked with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra under the guidance of Maestri Asher Fisch, Johannes Fritzsch, Marko Letonja and Christopher Seaman. Her most recent studies are with Maestro Carlo Montanaro.

Sarah is also in demand as an adjudicator and panelist, including serving on the Musica Viva Artistic Review Committee and as a juror for the Vocal/Choral section of the APRA/AMCOS Art Music Awards. In addition to her musical credits, she holds a PhD from the University of Sydney.

In 2023, Sarah is looking forward to touring OCDiva, further appearances with the Willoughby Symphony and River City Voices, and speaking on a panel for the Out, Loud & Proud Choral Festival during Sydney World Pride. Her creative projects include creating a new structured improvisation for voices inspired by James Turrell’s ‘Amarna’ at MONA for Hobart’s Festival of Voices, where she will also direct the Pride Choir workshop.

Header photo by Karen Almond.

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