Cappella Sanctae Catharinae, the only all-male chamber choir in Malta, is this year celebrating its 10th birthday. Artistic director Alex Vella Gregory tells Simonne Pace that what originally started out as an experiment has blossomed into a fully-fledged, permanent choir.

All it takes to be a chorister with Cappella Sanctae Catharinae is a love for music and a positive attitude. Oh, and, of course, you have to be a male!

The only all-male choral ensemble in Malta, which turns 10 this year, started out as a one-off experiment – a long-term fundraising project which kicked off in 2009 to help with the restoration of the church of St Catherine of Italy in Valletta.

One of the restorers working on the project – an Italian called Fabio Billi – was also a chorister with a male choir in Rome, so he decided to approach some of the musicians involved to form an all-male choir.

“The initial group was christened Cappella Sanctae Catharinae in honour of St Catherine, in whose church the choir was formed. What was meant to be just one performance was so well received that the choir was formally set up as a long-term project,” says its artistic director, Alex Vella Gregory.

The choir focuses mostly on Renaissance and early Baroque sacred polyphony, with works by composers like Palestrina, Victoria and Byrd forming the bulk of its repertoire. However, the choir has also performed contemporary works, secular works from the Renaissance and also plainchant, popularly known as Gregorian Chant, a form of unaccompanied monophonic medieval sacred music.

“The choir focuses on a pre-18th century sacred repertoire which was written for all-male choirs. Because mixed choirs were not allowed at the time, a lot of music was written for ‘equal’ voices. This repertoire is rarely heard, or else heard in modern versions with mixed voices,” Vella Gregory explains.

“Italian Renaissance music is probably our forte. Our predominantly Mediterranean temperament and the fact that this repertoire is incredibly beautiful to sing makes it attractive for everybody.”

The choristers all come from very different backgrounds. Some have had professional vocal training and are soloists in their own right, while others are gifted with a good ear and a good voice.

Some have had professional vocal training and are soloists in their own right, while others are gifted with a good ear and a good voice

Some are lawyers, bankers, restorers, educators. There is also a priest. Members are Maltese, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian, Japanese and Irish – this gives the choir a more interesting touch.

The choir has performed in some spectacular venues all over Malta. Its most recent performance was in the Oratory of the Beheading at St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta as part of Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti’s ongoing Music in Malta project. The choir has also just held its first Gozo performance at the Victoria Cathedral, dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady.

Singing during Gaudete 2017 at the church of Our Lady of Victories, Valletta. Photo: FritzSinging during Gaudete 2017 at the church of Our Lady of Victories, Valletta. Photo: Fritz

Other memorable events include singing in the chapels of Fort St Angelo and Fort St Elmo, as well as in wonderful spaces like Verdala Castle, the medieval church of Bir Miftuħ and other glorious churches and venues.

“The final week prior to a performance, though hectic in terms of rehearsal time, is the least stressful,” Vella Gregory says.

“Most of the planning happens months before, from putting together an appropriate programme to finding venues and collaborators and ensuring that all logistics are in place,” he adds.

“The biggest challenge in the final week is often rehearsing in the venue itself. The size and volume of the space affects a lot how we sing and our positioning.”

The choir’s upcoming commitment is an “exciting” theatre production in July called Pope Joan, which will be directed by Irene Christ and produced by Teatru Malta.

“This is our first ever venture into theatre as a choir and we are very much looking forward to it.”

The choir’s audiences are very varied. Even though the choir keeps a strong presence on social media, making it more easily accessible to the younger generation, Vella Gregory says attracting younger people is definitely one area which “we need to explore even further”.

“Passing on the beauty of choral music to young people is very simple – by setting an example. We need to expose children to beautiful things, not only to choral music. Adults must show an interest by listening to choral music and attending concerts. Their home should be their first school.”

Asked about choral music in Malta, Vella Gregory thinks that “despite a rich choral tradition, choirs are sadly on the decline. The demands of a modern, hectic life are eating away at our voluntary sector and choral singing is no exception. The result is that many choirs struggle not only to attract new members but also to find the time and resources to carry out exciting projects”. Cappella Sanctae Catharinae prides itself in offering an experience and not just music.

“It may be hard to convince people to attend first time round, but once they hear the music being sung in its original setting, they usually keep following us,” says Vella Gregory, who also has the role of musical director.

The choir holds all its rehearsals in the church of St Catherine of Italy. Is there a special connection between church and choir?

“The church has become our second home, a central space where we congregate to rehearse. The nuns welcomed us with open arms and we must admit that the idea of rehearsing in a monastery dedicated to St Catherine was very appealing!”