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A chorus of approval

Hugo Agius Muscat conducting the choir.

Hugo Agius Muscat conducting the choir.

Not many choirs can boast of having performed at Notre Dame in Paris or St Paul’s Cathedral in London. These are just some of the St Paul Choral Society’s achievements. Director Hugo Agius Muscat shares notes with Veronica Stivala on why his choir has been so successful.

There are only a handful of true polyphonic choirs in Malta. This means that the choristers sing harmonic textures of at least four voices.

The St Paul Choral Society (SPCS) is a leader among these few such choirs. Proof of this is their being accepted to sing in some of the greatest temples of music, such as St Paul’s Cathedral in London, St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna and the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

This year is a special one for the 60-strong choir in that it is celebrating its 20th anniversary since it was founded. I have interviewed its founder and music director, Hugo Agius Muscat, before and remain fascinated by how this father, husband, public health consultant, physician and qualified organist manages to balance between  these demanding lifestyles.

He confides that he does so “with great difficulty”, adding that “work always comes first; it has to”. The remaining time is shared between family and music. The fact that his wife and daughter sing in the choir helps, but Dr Agius Muscat admits his sons “probably wish I didn’t give up so much time to the choir” and that his “organ-playing would also probably go further if [he] spent less time on the choir”. Despite this, he has put Malta on the map of the Royal College of Organists when he became the first Maltese to earn one of its prized qualifications.

It is no mean feat for the choir to have grown as it has in the past 20 years, as well as to have so many achievements to its name. To list a few, it released a highly successful CD of Christmas Carols (O Ġesù, Ħelwa Tarbija), won a Silver Diploma at the 2009 Malta International Choir Festival and travelled to an enviable number of prestigious locations over the past five years, including landmarks such as the León and Burgos Cathedrals, as well as the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the Kollegienkirche in Salzburg and the beautiful church of the Madeleine in Paris.

Being the first Maltese choir to sing at Notre Dame in Paris was a great honour

Looking back on this string of achievements, Dr Agius Muscat singles out some personal highlights. “Being the first Maltese choir to sing at Notre Dame in Paris was a great honour, and directing and playing at the Madeleine and St Sulpice was a great personal high. The overwhelming reception at Burgos and León Cathedrals in Spain last year is also firmly etched into my mind; I had never signed so many autographs in my life,” he said.

 The fact that the choir is made up of non-professional singers makes its achievements all the more impressive. Indeed, Dr Agius Muscat underlines how they have learnt that “with hard work and perseverance, even non-professional singers can achieve notable musical results while doing something they enjoy”. 

This month, the SPCS will be performing Vivaldi’s Gloria as well as a number of works by Vierne, Fauré, Handel and Mozart, to name a few, at St John’s Co-Cathedral and St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, both in Valletta.

Vivaldi’s Gloria is new to the choir’s repertoire. “We chose it to emphasise on  the celebratory nature of the anniversary concerts,” explains the director. The other choral works hark back to previous achievements. The Kyrie from Vierne’s Messe Solennelle was sung during the choir’s first concert at St John’s in 2000. The Cantique de Jean Racine by Fauré was one of the best-received pieces in Paris when they sang it in 2015 at the Madeleine (Fauré’s own church).

Handel’s Zadok the Priest is a favourite. The Mendelssohn is an organ solo which will give their highly talented organist Elisabeth Conrad an opportunity to show off her skills. The Saint-Saëns is certainly a first on the local music scene and Mozart’s Ave Verum is a nod to the two highly successful Mozart concerts presented by the choir in 2006 and 2016. 

Looking to the future, Dr Agius Muscat has many aspirations for his choir, though he admits it is difficult, “because when ageing members inevitably leave it is hard now to replace them with young people who are passionate about music and generous enough to put in the selfless effort that the choir entails”.

He notes how nowadays “many young people with even modest singing talent try to achieve instant stardom on [what he calls] the ‘Eurovision circuit’. Others are drawn to secular pursuits such as musical theatre, rather than the abstract purity of sacred music.” So, he confides: “Building a good foundation for the future is a struggle.” That said, he remains hopeful and happy to continue leading the SPCS musically, “as long as I have the time and energy to do so. There are many more successes that the SPCS can chalk up!”

Dr Agius Muscat remains ever grateful to the choir members who have voluntarily dedicated their time to the choir’s successes. He encourages as many people as possible to come to their anniversary concerts, which are in an aid of Hospice Malta and the St Paul’s Pro-Cathedral Restoration Appeal.

“I can confidently promise them a great musical experience,” he said. Last but not least, he adds, those who think they have got what it takes to be an SPCS member shouldn’t hesitate to get in touch with director@spcsmalta.org.

The St Paul Choral Society presents Gloria! 20 Years of Choral Harmony at St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta on Friday at 7.30pm and at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, Valletta, on Saturday at 7.30pm. For more information, visit www.spcsmalta.org. Tickets from www.showshappening.com.

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