Despite its size, Gozo has plenty to offer, the leading composer and conductor reveals.
Malta Philharmonic Orchestra
Widely considered to be Malta’s leading contemporary composer and conductor, Prof. Joseph Vella has travelled far and wide for his work, but his roots are grounded in the tiny island of Gozo. The internationally-famed composer is also responsible for helping to raise Gozo’s cultural scene to astronomical heights, despite its miniscule size.
There is a wealth of cultural activities throughout the year, he says, which in fact is quite disproportionate to Gozo’s size. “Pride of place in this regard are of course the two opera houses in Victoria, the Astra and the Aurora which, between them, produce operas of a high level on an annual basis,” he continues. In fact, Prof. Vella has been the musical director of the Astra Opera Theatre since 1970, where he’s conducted successful productions of Rigoletto, Lucia di Lamermoor, Aida, Nabucco, Macbeth, Turandot, Forza del Destino, Gioconda, Trovatore, Traviata and Un Ballo in Maschera among others.
“Worthy of mention are also Gozo's two chamber music festivals, the Victoria International Arts Festival (five weeks of daily concerts held in June/July), Mediterranea (last two weeks of October), and Gaulitana (three weeks around April).”
These festivals combined provide entire weeks of daily concerts, involving international artists and musicians who come to Gozo to perform concerts of an international standard, says the composer. “But the cultural scene is not just confined to classical music. It is replete with all genres of entertainment, musicals, operettas and open-air concerts. Also worth mentioning is the rich sub-culture scene of the folk type, namely village feasts, ghana (traditional folk singing) evenings, Carnival festivities and others.”
As artistic director of the Victoria International Arts Festival (VIAF) and Mediterranea festival, Prof. Vella has witnessed both festivals evolve considerably over the years. “Like everything else in this world, these cultural activities did have rather humble beginnings. But they have steadily grown, not only in stature but also in quality,” he says.
“For example, VIAF, which started as a one-week affair, now has a full-blown run of five weeks of daily concerts. We invite top-notch musicians from all over the world, and the fame of the Festival has spread in such a way that we receive requests for participation in numbers that we can hardly accommodate. Also, all our concerts are free of charge to the public, and it is quite gratifying for me and my committee knowing that patrons fly to Malta purposely to attend our concerts,” he says. “What I say about VIAF of course also applies to the Astra operas and Mediterranea Festival. The operas, especially, can be said to have set local standards and are deemed to be of a calibre that compares very well with the performances at opera houses in Italy.”
Despite its development, however, Gozo’s cultural scene still has room for growth. Where would the conductor like to see it, a few years from now? “The music scene in Gozo is improving all around. Young musicians are being well trained and imbued with an artistic sense that was hardly noticeable say 20 or 30 years ago,” he says. “This augurs well, and one hopes that sometime soon, a local orchestra of a certain professional standard can be put together. This will also have a ripple effect on potential musical activities in various sectors.”
With decades of experience and memories in his various roles, it begs the question – what is Prof. Vella’s most memorable conducting performance in Gozo? “Given the ‘cultual’ circumstances in Gozo during the early 90s, I think that the performance I gave of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in St George's Square remains a memorable experience. It was sung by a mass choir from Malta (Akkademja) and Gozo (Laudate Pueri), and besides the intrinsic achievement of the performance, it was the first time ever that a symphony was played live in Gozo.”