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500 years of music through 50 voices: KorMalta’s growing repertoire

“My dream,” artistic director and chorus master Riccardo Bianchi confides, “is for KorMalta to develop into a choral group that can tackle the full range of choral repertoire, from the Renaissance to the contemporary.”

The choir, presently 50 people strong, is still in its infancy – it was only established in late 2018, as the direct continuation of a choir established by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra only the previous year – but it has already made considerable headway in bringing Bianchi’s vision to life. Its repertoire already goes through half a millennium of choral music, sacred and secular, from early polyphonic works to contemporary pieces.

Perhaps the oldest song it has performed dates back to the early 16th century, and was written by none other than King Henry VIII – he of the six wives – as he embraced the Renaissance ideal of embracing as much knowledge and developing as much talent as possible. The catchy tune, Pastime with Good Company, had spread wildly, becoming the Renaissance equivalent of a hit pop single.

KorMalta has already tackled a number of other works from the Renaissance canon including pieces Palestrina, Byrd as well as Monteverdi, who was active as the Renaissance era gave way to the Baroque. But contemporary choral works are also close to the choir’s heart. The choir has tackled plenty of newer works by contemporary and active composers, including Ola Gjeilo, Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen.

And as befits Malta’s national choir, its repertoire also includes a choral arrangement of the Innu Malti,: other Maltese works tackled by KorMalta include Joseph Vella’s musical setting of Anton Buttigieg’s poem Il-Kebbies tal-Fanali and the traditional Christmas carol Ninni la Tibkix Iżjed.

Seeking such a wide range does present its challenges, however, as not every voice is necessarily suited – or trained – to perform in every genre. At present, Bianchi explains, KorMalta’s choristers have largely trained to sing in a more operatic style which can be ill-suited to early examples of polyphonic choral music.

As one might expect, much of KorMalta’s repertoire consists of a cappella works the choir can perform unassisted, though curiously enough, the earliest a cappella performances were likely accompanied by instruments which doubled the vocal parts. However, it is keen to explore all sorts of choral works.

After all, it started out as the choir of a symphony orchestra, and it is continuing to delve into symphonic choral repertoire through its continuing collaboration with the MPO. Its first-ever performance saw it tackle no less than Beethoven’s famous Ninth Symphony, the first significant example of a choral symphony and a veritable baptism of fire for a nascent choral ensemble.

Other symphonic works tackled by KorMalta include Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor as well as Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man, a contemporary take on the musical setting of a mass for what is effectively a moving and powerful anti-war piece. The choir has also handled chamber works including Brahms’ Vier Gesänge, written for a female choir, two horns and a harp, as well as Biber’s Requiem in F minor. Additionally, 2019 saw its first foray into opera, taking the role of the chorus in the Teatru Manoel’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Otello.

In such collaborative projects, naturally, the choice of repertoire is typically out of KorMalta’s hands, but such outside input is welcomed by Bianchi. In similar fashion, he looks forward to increasing collaborations with other choirs and with renowned choir conductors who could lead KorMalta to explore new music pathways.

Of course, Bianchi has his own ideas on what KorMalta should explore. He has an interest in exploring the rich corpus of choral symphonic work by Italian composers: such work is often overshadowed by the hugely popular Italian operas. One particular composer he wishes KorMalta to delve into is the Sicilian composer Vincenzo Bellini – himself mostly known for operatic works including the Norma.

The Covid-19 pandemic has inevitably thrown a spanner in the works, with social distancing requirements limiting the number of choristers who can share the stage. KorMalta, however, has sought to make the most out of the disruption by exploring more intimate works, though these present their own challenge to choristers: each individual voice, naturally, matters far more in smaller ensemble.

It has also found workarounds allowing a larger ensemble to perform whilst fully respecting health precautions, including a concert which will see choristers occupy the boxes – rather than the stage – at the Manoel. Once the weather permits, outdoor venues should also allow for larger ensembles, including a planned performance of Ola Gjeilo’s Sunrise Mass in the most perfect time and place Malta can offer: sunrise at Mnajdra Temples on the summer solstice.

And so, come rain or shine, KorMalta will continue to grow, as will its fascinating repertoire.

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