By Joyce Gan
The Cathedral Choir of the Risen Christ is synonymous with beautiful church music. Their singing adds to the sublimity of Sunday Mass at the cathedral.
EVERY SUNDAY MORNING the choir processes in stately fashion into the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd for the 10am Mass. They bear the standard, which was blessed in Rome by Pope John Paul II. They are the Cathedral Choir of the Risen Christ. Many Singaporeans would call them the Peter Low Choir after the man who has been associated with them as choir master since 1971.
The choir was at the Risen Christ parish - hence its name - from 1970 until its installation at the cathedral in April 2002 at the request of former Cathedral Rector, Msgr Eugene Vaz. "After 32 years at one place it's time to move on especially since Risen Christ had other choirs in place," Mr Low remarked.
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Almost all the choir members moved with the choir. They are a dedicated group and Mr Low holds them in high esteem while setting high standards for them. "In any thing that you do, you have got to be dedicated," he shared. "That's the one thing that makes the difference." For example, choir members do not go on holiday during Christmas and Easter as their singing is "a gift to the worshipping community and to the Christ child."
Every Sunday, members show up unfailingly and punctually at 9am to practise before Mass. They also practise at Mr Low's house once a month for three hours. Group cohesion may be another reason for the choir's excellent quality. There are whole families who sing together in the choir. Recently, two members, Rebecca Ang and Karen Mong, chose to come back to sing after one month of maternity leave although they were allowed to go on a two-year maternity leave from the choir.
New members are accepted into the choir on a trial basis and they will only be confirmed if they have the right attitude, an attribute which Mr Low considers very important. "I believe a choir should be able to sing competentlyâ€¦ not just to sing hymns but to lead the congregation. Our job is to sing parts of the Liturgy that will bring beauty to the liturgy and to enhance the sense of worship," Mr Low said.
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As the mother church in Singapore, the cathedral deserves a proper choir to provide a musical standard which would be expected of a cathedral, Mr Low explained. Among the contribution of the choir to making the liturgy beautiful and reverential is the use of Gregorian chants and Latin.
Mr Low learnt Gregorian chant and Latin in his younger days. He was Bishop Michael Olcomendy's personal altar boy at daily Mass from the age of 10 to 18. Back then, Masses were celebrated in Latin. "We were singing in a language we did not speak but that doesn't mean we didn't understand it (the worship)," he said and likened the practice to that of Buddhists who chant in Sanskrit and Muslims in Arabic.
"I'm in favour of selective use of Latin as it's strongly endorsed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as the language of the Roman Catholic Church. It's a connection not only between nations but with our past." He feels that singing the "Our Father" and the "Creed" in Latin adds a sense of the sublime. Singing in Latin will link us across frontiers as it is "international practice in cathedrals all over the world," he added.
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A lifetime's contribution
Peter Low has spent much of his life making beautiful music for the church. He conducted his first youth choir in 1965 at the Church of St. Michael before conducting his full choir in 1971 at the Church of the Risen Christ. What keeps him going?
"The word is grace," he asserted. He believes that everyone is given gifts and must use these gifts to serve the Lord. "Some people are born to do social work, some to teach, some to visit the sick. Music is a gift of God to me and I must give it back".
And he has, not just to the church but to Singapore as well, which is in keeping with the Cathedral Choir of the Risen Christ's motto Pro-Pontifice et Patria which means "For Pope and Country". The choir has often performed to raise funds for worthy causes such as schools, homes for the aged, hospitals and international relief.
At home, the choir performed at significant occasions such as the opening of Changi Prison War Memorial and Singapore's 25th National Day celebrations. The choir has also made its mark internationally. It sang in Bethlehem at the invitation of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism in 1995, and again in Israel at the "Concert for Peace" in 1999. It has played its part to promote Singapore tourism by performing in international events held by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board and Singapore Airlines.
These contributions to promote international relations and to the church earned Mr Low a knighthood from the Vatican in March 2003.
Right, Chinese Silk Dance - Choir and dancers performing the Chinese Carol at "The Promised One", the choir's first ever Christmas concert that was held on Dec 18, 2005.