Choir aims to place music within a wider context | Alexander Vella Gregory

Director of the Cappella Sanctae Catharinae choir Alexander Vella Gregory speaks to TEODOR RELJIC ahead of the choir’s 10th anniversary concert, which will also coincide with a trip to Rome, which also coincides with the research-based Malta Carols Project

Photography by Fritz Von Weinsberg and Daniel Cilia
Photography by Fritz Von Weinsberg and Daniel Cilia

First of all, how does it feel to be celebrating your 10th anniversary this year? What would you say are some of the most significant milestones you’ve achieved so far, and some of the most important lessons you’ve learnt along the way?

It’s been a long and exciting journey – 10 years ago we would never have imagined we’d be where we are today. Cappella Sanctae Catharinae started off as a one-off experiment as part of a series of concerts to raise funds for the restoration of the Church of St Catherine of Italy in Valletta (hence the name).

The audience response was encouraging, and 10 years later, here we are! We’ve had some fantastic experiences along the way including being part of Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti’s ‘Music in Malta’ Project (2018), the Malta International Arts Festival (Pope Joan, 2018), and the first ever edition of the Valletta International Baroque Festival (2013).

We have sung in more than 46 venues across Malta and Gozo, from imposing sacred spaces (Oratory of the Beheading in St John’s Cathedral, and the Cathedral of the Assumption in Gozo), to smaller ecclesiastical gems (the churches inside Fort St Angelo and Fort St Elmo), as well as beautiful secular spaces (Palazzo Verdala, Rabat, and the Birgu ditch).

Cappella Sanctae Catharinae has always been committed to more than just concerts. All our events aim to bring beautiful music to a wider audience, and to placing that music within a wider context.

We have also helped many worthy causes through our concerts, including philanthropic causes and raising funds for heritage projects.
We have also sponsored the restoration of a tome of notarial deeds (the cover of which was made up of recycled illuminated manuscripts) as part of our ongoing collaboration with the Notarial Archives Foundation.

There are two very important lessons that CSC has taught me (and us). First of all the importance of friendship and respect. This is all done on a voluntary basis, and we do this for the love of singing.

We are aware that we are an amateur choir – but that does not stop us from creating great music, and we strive continuously to improve our performances.

The second lesson is the importance of reaching out far and wide to new audiences. Music should be a conversation between the musician and the listener – it has to communicate something, otherwise it becomes vapid entertainment. We are committed to reaching out to new audiences and making music accessible.

Alexander Vella Gregory
Alexander Vella Gregory

What can we expect from your upcoming concert in Malta, and how will the experience be repeated and exported across our shores to Rome? Are you excited to be touring, and what kind of reaction are you expecting?

The Gaudete series is our annual Christmas appointment. However it is not just any Christmas concert. We focus on little known repertoire such as Medieval Carols or carols from around the world and give it a wider audience. To date, we’ve sung carols not only in English and Maltese, but also in French, Italian, German, Hungarian, Latin, and even Huron! This year we will be presenting another great selection of carols, including some of our older repertoire. Since this is our 10th anniversary, we will be including the very first two pieces that the choir sung way back in 2009. The concert will be held on Saturday, December 7 in the Parish Church of the Assumption in Gudja.

Of course, we do know that December 7 is slightly early for a Christmas concert, but this has been done out of necessity since the following weekend we will be celebrating our anniversary in Rome. This is our first foray abroad, and everyone is very much looking forward to it.
It is our chance to sing to new audiences, and also collaborate with foreign musicians. We are also very excited to be presenting our Maltese Carols project abroad. This tour was also made possible through the Arts Council Malta – Cultural Export Fund.
The concert will also feature work done for the Malta Carols Project. Could you tell us a little bit about it, and how that all came about?

The Maltese Carols Project started off in 2016 following a conversation with a friend of mine whose dad still remembered old Maltese carols that he sang in his childhood. I asked her to record him singing those carols, which he did. We then committed ourselves to introducing a ‘new’ Maltese carol every Christmas as part of our commitment to our intangible heritage. We were also very lucky to have recorded them, since John Zammit, our source, passed away a couple of years later. This project is a tribute to his memory and lifelong commitment towards music, and we are currently introducing our fourth carol.

We are also continuing our research and expanding our search in order to salvage more intangible heritage. I have recently come across a small publication from the 1950s which has several Maltese carols, most of which are unknown, but most of which Zammit sang for us! The publication also hints at other choirs that sang particular carols, and we are currently following some very exciting new leads. Once you start digging, the stories you uncover reveal themselves to be quite amazing!

What do you make of the local musical scene? What would you change about it?

I would expand that question a little. Very often we speak of a ‘music scene’ or an ‘arts scene’ and that approach unfortunately often leads to creative and cultural isolation. We are currently undergoing great social and cultural upheavals and unlike past periods of transition this is not a gradual process but a violent sweeping away or distortion of the past. We can see the results in the way we are destroying our tangible heritage: horror stories of old buildings being demolished or gutted, old books being discarded, and art disappearing or deteriorating before our very eyes.

But the worst victim is our intangible heritage, precisely because it is not visible. The gutting of a building, the throwing away of an old book, and the disappearance of an art object result in the eradication of our stories. Sometimes even the most insignificant annotation on a piece of paper and the context in which it was found can shed light on our past.

On top of that is our national passivity in the face of this destruction – mostly because people do not realise the importance of what is being lost. This is not about aesthetics – it is about our national identity. It all boils down to education, because the system gears its citizens towards economic gain, and not cultural gain. But what are we without our stories? The result is the fake existences we have created for ourselves in the digital world – a world of algorithms and filters. Why like a picture of a church or a video of a song when you can go and physically be in that space and listen to that music live?

Many people think of change as being a government policy or a ‘roadmap’. It isn’t. Change is us: telling our stories, and creating new ones together – expanding on the narrative we have inherited from our ancestors. So I will not speak of change as a future hope but rather as the present in action: salvaging stories, retelling them, and expanding them.

What’s next for you?

Well, this is our anniversary season so we have an exciting  programme ahead of us. Our Lenten concert will be exploring the idea of a roaming performance – a choral pilgrimage where we invite the audience to join us on a meditative journey across several beautiful spaces.

Without divulging too much information all I can say is that it will happen in Valletta on April 4, 2020. Our end of season concert in June 2020 will also be a special one being held in collaboration with Heritage Malta. This time we will be exploring music and food… but more about that later on!

Cappella Sanctae Catharinae’s 10th anniversary Gaudate concert will be taking place on December 7 at the Parish Church of the Assumption in Gudja, 7.30pm.