Sunday, 13 March 2016

Splendid Baroque setting for Lenten choral concert

by Laurence Grech

IMG 20160313 130458The parish church of the Assumption of Our Lady in Birkirkara, popularly known as the Old Church, will provide the setting for a Lenten concert by one of the Maltese Islands’ leading choirs, the Schola Cantorum Jubilate of Xagħra, which this year is celebrating its 15th anniversary.

The concert, entitled Miserere, in keeping with the Jubilee Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis, takes place on March 19 at 7.30pm and is in aid of the restoration and up-keep of the church, which is widely acknowledged as a jewel of Maltese baroque architecture.

The Old Church is one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture in Malta. Planned by Vittorio Cassar (1550-1607), son of the famous Gerolamo Cassar, it is believed to have been completed by Tommaso Dingli, even if this is not documented. It took over 50 years to complete.

The church is in the form of a Latin cross, with two elaborately sculpted side chapels and side altars along the aisle. The semi-circular vault is decorated with sculpted eight-pointed stars, while the frieze is adorned with angels, a tower and an ox.

This was once Birkirkara’s only parish church, but after the present St Helen’s Basilica was completed in 1745, it was allowed to fall into ruin. However, in 1950 the Birkirkara collegiate chapter asked Archbishop Michael Gonzi to reopen the church. Work on its reconstruction started in 1969 and in May 1972 it was reopened for public worship. The reconstruction and stonework was carried out under the supervision of master mason Abraham Schembri. It became a parish church in 2005.

Today, the church caters for the spiritual needs of around 1,000 families. In recent years a number of cracks have appeared in various parts of the church. Scientific deteriorating. The work involves considerable expense for the parish which, however, is determined to conserve this priceless example of Malta’s architectural heritage.

The Schola Cantorum Jubilate was founded in Xagħra in the year 2000 by Stefan Attard, who runs it to this day, and directed by Marouska Attard, a music graduate from the University of Malta who also holds a Master’s in Choral Direction from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

The choir released its first CD, consisting of Christmas carols, in 2001. Another CD, this time of polyphonic works, was issued in 2005. While the core of its repertoire consists of polyphonic singing, the choir also sings works by other famous composers and also Maltese and Gozitan composers.

The choir has had a number of engagements abroad. In 2007 Schola Cantorum Jubilate performed at the Vatican in the presence of Pope Benedict XVI and also sang at the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome and that of St Francis in Assisi.

During this tour the choir had a meeting with Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci, a renowned composer of sacred music and the director of the Sistine Chapel choir, who was so impressed by their singing that he gave them copies of all his published musical works, which they often perform.

However, the choir is perhaps best known for its annual Christmas concert, Carols by Candlelight, which was first held in 2003. This also includes poetry readings and meditations on sacred texts and since 2005 has been held at the Augustinian monastery in Victoria. In 2010 The Guardian named Carols by Candlelight among the 10 best Christmas concerts in Europe.

The choir has had a number of prestigious engagements in Malta and has sung major works of the classical repertoire, the latest being a performance of Mozart’s Coronation Mass last September. It has also performed in France, Austria and Italy, including at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice and St Anthony’s Basilica in Padova.

The choir sings regularly during the 1am Mass every Sunday at the Basilica of the Nativity of Our Lady in Xagħra.

The choral pieces selected for the March 19 concert at Birkirkara’s old church consist of Lenten and Easter music. Polyphonic pieces by Palestrina, Tallis, Byrd and Bartolucci will be performed a capella. Bach’s chorale O sacred Head will be performed in Maltese (text translated by Emanuel Mifsud).

Other choral pieces include works by Kodaly, Zelenka and Faure’s In Paradisum from Requiem Op. 48.

Soprano Marouska Attard will perform Laudate Dominum by Mozart and bass Albert Buttigieg will sing Tradiderunt Me from Responsorio per Giovedì Santo by Antonio Nani.

The concert will include also an instrumental piece, Meditation, from the opera Thaïs by Massenet. This will be performed by Sarah Spiteri on the violin and Joseph Camilleri on the organ. Some spiritual reflections will be read as well.

Entrance to the concert is free, but those present will be invited to make a donation.

Article featured on The Sunday Times of Malta 13/03/2016

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