Joseph Vella Bondin

Maltese Opera Performers - Part 23 - Coda

This week, we have the last blog by Mr Joseph Vella Bondin about Maltese composers of opera.  

The 22 blogs contributed so far in this series have focused on the impressive achievements of Maltese composers in the field of opera. I hope they have been of interest. The current blog, which is in the nature of a coda, deals not with composition but with the performance of Maltese serious (or classical) music, including operas.

There have been some exceptional initiatives in this field, particularly that of the APS Bank. Taking the form of an annual flagship concert, the Bank brought to light works written by past and present Maltese composers performed by local conductors, singers, and instrumentalists, the first in the series, A Concert of Baroque Sacred Music by Maltese Composers, being presented on 10 November 2001 and a fine recording of Antonio Nani’s lauded Requiem concluding it in 2016.

APS Bank forms part of the private sector. What I would like to concentrate on in this blog are concerts which have a national-political dimension or involve performing entities maintained by public funds, one of whose responsibilities must surely be the care and propagation of this heritage.

I still remember fondly and with pride a number of related concerts in many of which I was directly involved as a classical singer. The following spring to mind:

  1. Malta Day concert (29 May 1970) at Expo ’70 in Osaka Japan during which Joseph Sammut conducted the Kyoto Symphony Orchestra in a concert that included Charles Camilleri’s Malta Suite and Carmelo Pace’s tone poem Jubilamus.
  2. Maltafest 1984 which was illuminated by the inclusion of two operas by Maltese composers: Charles Camilleri’s Il-Wegħda (1984) and Antonio Nani’s Agnese Visconti (1888).
  3. Maltafest 1985 which included the premier on 5 August 1985 of Charles Camilleri’s other ‘Maltese’ opera Il-Fidwa tal-Bdiewa, commissioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Culture and Youth to mark Malta’s participation in the 1985 European Year of Music.
  4. The 1989 Malta Summit concert held on 1 December 1989 during which Joseph Gatt conducted a performance of the original version of Antonio Nani’s Requiem.
  5. The Gala Concert in honour of the German President von Weizsäcker at the Manoel Theatre on 22 October 1990 during which Joseph Vella conducted a vocal and orchestral concert of 18th Century Maltese works.
  6. The First Manoel Theatre Opera Festival (1999) which was defined by the revival of two Maltese works: Carmelo Pace’s opera I martiri (1967) and Nicolò Isouard’s Messa de Rohan (1795).

I remember particularly the standing ovation we had at the end of the iconic Malta Summit Concert and being bombarded with questions by attending V.I.P.s, many Foreign Ministers, about the ‘amazingly beautiful’ Requiem and whether there was a recording to take with them.

Our musical heritage does not include a Beethoven or a Richard Strauss but it does include such marvellous works as Azopardi’s Messa di Gloria in Fa for double chorus (1776) and Charles Camilleri’s Piano Concerto No 1 ‘Mediterranean’ (1978) (to name just two) and such works exhibit Malta’s (and, for that matter, the Mediterranean’s) DNA. Let us be proud and respectful of these achievements for they are our legacy that makes us what we are. Indeed, for such a minuscule nation, Malta can boast of an amazing level of musical accomplishment which it should be consistently parading on a national-political-cultural level.

Indeed, the contributions of our composers (and here I would like to emphasise those of bygone composers which tend to be more ‘forgotten’ that those of living composers) constitute both a cultural and financial asset that, I feel, is being ignored or seriously undervalued. Let me suggest as an example what might be done in the cruises market in which Malta is currently doing so well. My personal experience has been that on average cruisers tend to be mature and interested in the culture of the places visited, with many designating Malta as the home of the Knights of St John. Against this background I would love to see a Malta excursion being offered with the title: ‘Pastimes of the Grand Masters: hunting and the theatre’ which would include visits to Buskett Gardens, Verdala Palace which functioned as the Grand Masters’ summer residence and hunting lodge, and the Manoel Theatre which would incorporate a short (30-35 minutes) piano-accompanied concert featuring salon songs and (even) operatic excerpts by Maltese composers particularly those connected with the Manoel.

That is, of course, just one example. And it would, in addition, offer performance scope to the many first-rates and technically prepared (but unfortunately under-utilised) classical singers and pianists our country has at the moment.

There is, however, an important element to be considered. If the potentiality of our serious musical repertoire is to be fully exploited, it must be made readily available for performance on the same lines as the printed works of foreign composers are. The great majority of our works, particularly those of past eras, exist only in manuscript form and need to be professionally edited and printed in full, vocal and part scores. Luckily nowadays there is several score writing software (e.g. ‘Sibelius’) available through the internet which makes the process easier and professional looking. There is also the need for scores to be chased in the various archives that preserve them both in Malta and abroad. My latest book, The Great Maltese Composers: historical context, lives, and works (Malta: APS Bank Ltd, 2016), contains many indications of where Maltese serious music is preserved and it can serve as a starting point of reference.

There is, consequently, the need to construct the infrastructure needed to develop our serious music repertoire into both a national and a financial asset. At a minimum level, it would involve the engagement of a knowledgeable musicologist/manager with various skills including the evaluation and editing of music composed in different eras, a know-how about Maltese composers, computer technology skill and the ability to coordinate and ‘invent’ concerts.

In next week’s City of Humanity blog, we shall have a 2-part article about the Tenor Voice. 

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