Raising the musical bar

Irene Messoloras, the choral music director at Malibu High School, has raised the bar of excellence for the school’s choral and chamber music departments-not only increasing the number of students participating in the music programs, but gaining national recognition.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Irene Messoloras, choral music director at Malibu High School, likes to win. And, since arriving at Malibu High two years ago, she has built the choral and chamber music department from a meager choral group with eight students, to a nationally respected high school choir with 190 members that regularly wins awards for excellence.

The super-charged soprano says that she comes by her love of music naturally, thanks to her father, while growing up in a small town in upstate New York. After completing undergraduate studies at SUNY-Fredonia in New York State, she entered the highly competitive masters program at UCLA and, upon graduation, began her tenure at Malibu High School. Two years and countless awards later, she is cutting back her teaching obligations to begin working on a doctorate in musical arts at UCLA, in a department that accepts only one new student a year.

“I’ve had such a great experience teaching at Malibu High School,” the 28-year-old Messoloras said. “I have a middle school choir with 100 students, a chamber singer group with 25 students and two honors choir groups, with 60 to 65 members. These kids are so professional.”

Messoloras has accompanied her choral groups to performances in New York’s Carnegie Hall and celebrated venues all over Europe. She professes deep pride in her students’ preparedness and musical quality.

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“In Europe, we had five performances in eight days, along with travel and rehearsals, and they were totally ready at each stop,” she said.

With her charges having sung at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Messoloras focused last year on a trip to Salzburg, Austria and the 250th celebration of Mozart’s birthday. Whereas her group has prepared a difficult full performance of Mozart’s “Requiem,” Messoloras said they did not perform that piece while in Salzburg.

“It was Easter time, a time of rebirth, so it did not seem appropriate to sing a requiem there,” she said.

Instead, they performed a range of pieces, including a capella compositions dating from the Renaissance to the 20th century, in venues where Mozart himself played and composed. It was an eye-opening experience for most of her students.

“Classical music in Austria is like pop music here. It is very much a part of everyone’s life,” Messoloras said.

The choral group performed in venues as glorious as the Schoenbrunn Palace, the childhood home of Marie Antoinette, to baroque abbeys and small churches around Vienna, where the local gentry enthusiastically received them.

“We would be introduced to our audience in English so broken that we weren’t even sure when we were supposed to begin singing,” Messoloras said laughing. “But we would get standing ovations.” She booked all the venues herself and said that she would “try to find places that were meaningful to the repertoire we were singing,” but which was also good for the music itself.

“Music is just so important to people in Europe,” she said.

Messoloras is a member of the American Choral Directors Association and the Southern California Vocal Association, two professional music organizations that she said are crucial to any musical educator.

“I search for the highest quality music to teach my students and plan on staying in education for a long time,” she said.

This professional dedication has led to numerous awards in choral music competitions, including at the Azusa Music Festival, sponsored by Pacific University.

“This is an adjudicated competition that comes by invitation only. We had to submit a recording to be considered,” Messoloras said. “But we were judged by Weston Noble, the top guy in choral music today and he worked with our choir.”

At the Music in the Park Festival in Anaheim last year, each of the Malibu High School choirs placed first in their division-in a competition that saw more than 30 choral groups involved.

“We were given superior ranking, the highest awarded,” Messoloras said, “with an award for Best Overall Choir.”

One of her students who sings Messoloras’ praises is Erika Wolf, who graduated from Malibu High this year and plans to start classes at NYU in the fall. She has been on all of the choral director’s European tours, but said that the Salzburg festival last spring was the most memorable.

“We had about 50 kids there and they were the best choir we’ve offered,” Wolf said. “We sang sacred, secular and even contemporary stuff and got a great taste of what Austria is like, culturally. We even sang at a church where Mozart had composed on the organ!”

When asked to name her teacher’s particular strengths, Wolf’s response is immediate.

“She’s assertive. She’s very, very talented. She is nice, but she doesn’t let things slide if the music is not going where she wants. She’s always learning new things and bringing them to us.”

Wolf said she personally knows of at least two graduating students who are going on to careers in musical performance.

“But that’s Ms. Messoloras’ skill at recruiting,” she said. “She’ll hold master classes and even pizza parties to find new voices.”

How do pizza parties help to find new voices?

“Karaoke!” Wolf said. “Ms. Messoloras makes it fun. But she’s real serious.”

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