Prof Mro Joseph Vella, Artistic Director of the Victoria International Arts Festival, has this to say about this year’s 20th edition of the Victoria International Arts Festival:
“Twenty years ago, together with the invaluable help of my team of collaborators, we started a mini-revolution in Gozo, which can be said to have had ripple effects not only on our small island but also in Malta. The Victoria International Arts Festival is now not only solidly established on the local scene as a quality Festival of, basically, chamber music, but its fame has overflowed its national boundaries to reach and generate interest in a wide international circle. We are now at a stage where we have to select prospective local and foreign participants who write to us asking to perform. This, of course, puts us in a unique position where we can sift and select material to finally come up with a truly professional line-up that has become synonymous with VIAF. Top-notch internationally-established artists, together with the best from the local scene, are the order of the day in this five-week long extravaganza of daily concerts, which, in line with a policy we initiated nineteen years ago, are also offered to the general public free of charge.
The scope, breadth, range, and standards of the concerts we are proposing are, naturally, made possible through the infrastructure that my hard-working and creative committee members have managed to put together over the years. In fact, the VIAF can now boast to have at its disposal a truly professional grand piano, a first-class harpsichord, a beautiful Baroque organ and, as from this year, a renovated Square Piano, probably the only one functioning in Malta. These resources are, of course, a sine qua non when one is thinking of asking over world-class instrumentalists who would obviously tend to shy away if they know they do not have the ‘right’ instrument to play on.
This year’s Festival is a special one, in that we are now celebrating our 20th edition. We are extremely proud of this achievement and for the occasion I, as Artistic Director, together with my worthy team, have put together a formidable programme. Suffice it to say that we are presenting a triple-bill opening. On Tuesday 6 June, there will be the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra performing two of my more important choral and symphonic works, namely, ‘A Canticle Cantata’ for full orchestra, soprano, tenor, and double choir, and ‘Symphony no. 3, The Apocalypse Verses’, for full orchestra, tenor solo, and big choir. On Wednesday 7 June, we will be hosting the world-famous Cappella Pontificia Sistina who will give a concert of sacred music under the direction of Massimo Palombella. Negotiations for this august event have been going on for months and we are extremely pleased that this dream will now be realised. The Sistine Chapel Choir will be flying purposely to Gozo to perform in our Festival, and this is an unprecedented initiative both for the Festival and the Sistine Chapel Choir. Then, on Thursday 8 June, the choir of the University of Delaware, a top-notch choral ensemble in the USA, will give a concert after their joint initiative with the Laudate Pueri Choir of St George’s Basilica in MPO concert of 6 June.
Apart from this, comprehensively, this year’s 20th edition will see an impressive 600 musicians hailing from 20 countries, coming over to perform. Some are coming from as far as Australia, the U.S.A., South Korea, and Taiwan – that is indeed how far and wide VIAF has made its presence felt. Household star names who have performed in VIAF are the Martinů Quartet, pianists Young-Choon Park and Gabriele Vianello, Tchaikovsky Competition Winner Cellist Daniel Veis, harpsichordist Bridget Cunningham, the choirs of Rochester, and Ely Cathedrals, members from the legendary choir of the Cappella Pontificia Sistina, harpist Fabrice Pierre, award-winners Baroque ensemble Le Jardin Musical, and so many more.
Building on our concept of basically a Festival of Chamber Music, the committee has this year gone all out to spotlight not just duos. In line this year, we have more string quartets, wind quintets, piano sextets, and even bigger and more diverse formations. Famous ensembles we are introducing this year are the Ensemble KlangEssenz and Mozarteum Piano Trio, just to mention a couple of chamber groups. Other high-profile ensembles include the Junior Royal Academy of Music Vocal Ensemble and the Paris-based Urban Quartet. The closing concert will again see the participation of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, which will perform Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto (soloist Nicolas Chatenet, Principal Trumpet with the Bastille Opera), and Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6 (Pastoral). My own work ‘Sounds of Celebration’ op. 129, celebrating our 20th edition, will open this concert.
I am also very proud to mention that VIAF has been instrumental in commissioning new works that are premiered during the Festival, and it has also introduced canonical works which were hitherto never performed on the islands. Suffice it to say that over the years, we premiered the Sibelius Violin Concerto, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, and Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, apart from some 9 new works that were premiered during the various concerts.
The basis of VIAF’s ethos is educational and cultural. Our Festival has been the first one the islands to offer a wide range of master classes given by foreign and local experts in the field. This is of extreme benefit to our students who, given the insularity of Gozo, do not have the exposure and opportunity that students in bigger countries would naturally have. This year we are also pioneering a workshop with immigrants, focusing on the power of art to transcend boundaries of race, colour, and religion.
Art exhibitions mounted at Il-Hagar – Heart of Gozo and other venues in Victoria are also in the pipeline. All this musical and artistic bonanza would hardly be possible without the close collaboration of my committee – Fr George Frendo as Assistant Director, Maria Frendo as Secretary, and Dennis Xuereb as financial advisor and controller, plus a host of young and energetic helpers in the logistics department.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Ministry for Gozo which, through the Gozo Cultural Support Programme, is the main sponsor of our Festival. My thanks also go to other sponsors who are making VIAF possible.
Prof Joseph Vella needs no introduction. His name and reputation have become institutionalised in Malta and a by-word for musical excellence and organisational acumen. Equally versatile as a composer, conductor, researcher, editor, University lecturer, Joseph Vella has established standards that would be more than a hard act to follow. A man of vision, with him at the helm success is a guarantee. Together with his committee, comprising Rev George Joseph Frendo (Assistant Artistic Director/Co-ordinator), Maria Frendo (Secretary), Dennis Xuereb (Treasurer/Accountant), David Camilleri, George Camilleri and James Borg (Logistics Officers) and a host of young people who year in year out help in no uncertain way towards making the event a memorable one, Prof Vella is pivotal in engaging the crème de la crème of musical talent world-wide. Such is his renown as a composer and conductor of excellence, with his works being performed all over the world and with new works of his being commissioned by top musicians, experts in their field, that the artistes he comes into contact with are always very eager to acknowledge his worth and make themselves available for our Festival. The network is increasingly widening and every year the committee is pleasurably afflicted with a headache – one with a difference for which no medical remedy is necessary. Sifting through the manifold, various and varied requests, it is always a question of being spoilt for choice and, inevitably, it is always with more than a gentle dose of regret that certain proposed concerts have to be postponed to a later edition.
For five weeks every year in June/July, Victoria joins the festival cities of the world, with artistes and ensembles from all over the world combining to leave their mark on the soul of the island. That is precisely what the Festival in the heart of Victoria, blending drive, professional ethos and the typical Gozo penchant for laid-back charm, has come to signify for an ever-widening network of patrons and admirers hailing from top music centres all over the world down to the cultural-minded visitor and local music lover. Culture makes places distinctive, engendering pride in the local community. It also makes a practical contribution in terms of sustainability, providing employment, encouraging learning and inspiring people to adopt creative and active lifestyles.
Victoria International Arts Festival was the brain child of the resident choir at St George’s Basilica. The choir was formally set up by, Rev Dr Joseph Farrugia, Archpriest at the Basilica (1998 – 2007). Nevertheless, it knows its roots to a much earlier and very deeply established tradition of sacred music performed at the principal parish church of Gozo. The main objective of the choir has been the cultivation and promotion of sacred music within the liturgical context, with particular emphasis on sacred polyphony. In this regard, the choir has established for itself a sound reputation as leading interpreter of polyphonic music of both the classic and the contemporary idioms. The choir is also the first Maltese choir to perform as an all-female choir (SSAA). In a wider context, the choir’s objective is the dissemination of high culture, which is admirably achieved through the Victoria International Arts Festival apart from its strong participation and collaboration in opera productions staged at the Teatru Astra every October. The director of the Choir is Rev George Joseph Frendo, who is also the Assistant Director of the Victoria International Arts Festival.