The annual musical extravaganza kicks off this week in honour of its founder Mro Joseph Vella, starring world class musicians and artistes. And it’s all free!
Gozo hits the high notes this week as the 21st edition of the five-week long Victoria International Arts Festival gets under way, albeit with one important element missing: its founder, conductor and composer Mro Joseph Vella, a stalwart of the local music scene, who passed away last February.
Before his untimely demise, Mro Vella had already laid all the groundwork for the festival, and the organisers have decided to fulfil his final wishes and present the programme intact, just as he had devised it.
VIAF 2017, Sam Cefai
“The sudden and devastating demise of Mro Vella is one that will be felt for a very long time,” says Maria Frendo, VIAF organising committee secretary. “The festival won’t be the same without his ubiquitous presence, without his input as a conductor and more. However, this tragedy has made the organisers even more determined to honour his name and his legacy by continuing what he had started, and doing this to the best of our abilities.”
Originally the brainchild of the resident choir at St George’s Basilica in Gozo’s capital Victoria, the festival has evolved over the years into an annual event which is sought after not just by music lovers but by performers themselves, who ask to be invited to participate time and again despite not being paid a fee.
“The festival is unique,” explains Maria, “not only because it is the longest-running one of its kind on the Maltese Islands, but also because, miraculously, we have managed to offer all concerts and cultural events completely free of charge.”
Yes, you read that right. All events are free. That’s five full weeks of concerts every single day, all free. Not to mention the seven master classes in piano, violin, woodwind, brass and accompaniment.
VIAF - Martinu Quartet
“This is a policy that we have managed to exercise and maintain since the very first edition of VIAF back in 1997,” continues Maria. “This is also a festival that aims to bridge the gap between music connoisseurs and those who maybe have never been to a classical music concert before. We hope to offer something for everyone.”
The festival aims to present a classical music programme that is accessible to all irrespective of their knowledge of the genre. “Despite the very high standards of the concerts presented, there is accessibility, the atmosphere is beautiful and the venues are stunning,” emphasises Maria.
Indeed, the venues themselves deserve star billing, and you’ll be forgiven if you get distracted by the glorious surroundings. The festival centres around Victoria with the majestic St George’s Basilica as a focal point. Aula Mgr Giuseppe Farrugia at the back of the basilica is the main concert hall in the programme, and features a priceless harpsichord bought from the prestigious Finchcock’s Museum in Kent and a baroque organ built from 16th and 17th century pipes by Prof. Richard Vendome, Fellow of Queen’s College, Oxford, and his team who donated it to the VIAF.
Big band concerts will be performed on the rooftop of Il-Hagar Museum, also known as the “heart of Gozo”, a modern interactive, historic and fine arts museum illustrating the role of religious cultures in the formation of the identity of the people of Gozo.
VIAF 2017 - Sam Cefai
Look out for world-class performers such as the Martinu Quartet (performing on Sunday 24th June), Tchaikovsky Award winner cellist Daniel Veis (28th June), and the winners of the national youth competitions from Norway (3rd July) and Upper Austria (5th July). There will be no less than 28 chamber ensembles on the programme alongside a photography exhibition by celebrated local photographer Daniel Cilia.
Of course the highlights are always the opening and closing concerts with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra which, as in previous editions, will perform two of Mro Vella’s works. The inaugural choral and orchestral concert on 6th June will star soprano Miriam Cauchi and the Laudate Pueri Choir while the closing concert on 9th July will feature violin soloist Carmine Lauri who is also the sub-leader of the London Symphony Orchestra.
But throughout this joyous kaleidoscope of music there is one, underlying factor that binds it all together: Mro. Vella’s legacy. “The maestro’s legacy will be honoured not only in this edition but in all future ones as well. He was an inspired and inspiring polymath and we are only extremely privileged to have had his input, advice, expertise and, above all, friendship,” concludes Maria.
The Victoria International Arts Festival in Victoria, Gozo, runs from 6th June to 9th July.