Come one, come all: ‘Calleja and Friends’ wow the crowds

As expected, the sizeable crowd at the Granaries, Floriana was not left wanting by the annual Joseph Calleja concert, also featuring Zucchero, Rebecca Ferguson, Gianluca Bezzina and DJ duo Tenishia.

Joseph ‘The Maltese Tenor’ Calleja made it a point of bringing together the occasionally unlikely ensemble to back him up. Photo: Ray Attard.
Joseph ‘The Maltese Tenor’ Calleja made it a point of bringing together the occasionally unlikely ensemble to back him up. Photo: Ray Attard.

Tenor Joseph Calleja wowed audiences at the Floriana Granaries last Thursday with his annual 'Calleja and Friends' concert being opened to the standing public for free, for the very first time.

Calleja was accompanied by such star-studded guests as Italian bluesman Zucchero 'Sugar' Fornaciari, Rebecca Ferguson as well as Maltese Eurovision star Gianluca and DJs Tenishia.

The surprise guest for the evening was Italian singer Riccardo Cocciante.

All in all, the concert was very well organised - and while Calleja himself complained about technical hitches regarding sound, it's a safe bet that most of the audience would never have noticed had he not actually mentioned anything.

Either way, some minor audio hiccups could be discerned here and there: one song had to be restarted from scratch owing to 'technical problems', another (Miserere) played again as an encore because - apparently - the first version was not up to studio recording standards (and what have you). But it was nothing that actually got in the way of one's enjoyment of the concert as a whole.

Sticking to the organisational side of things, there were some interesting and unexpected touches. Timing fireworks to music is always a risk, but in this instance it proved remarkably effective. Also, having a backstage camera was a sweet idea... but was it really necessary to almost accompany Joseph Calleja into the toilet in between encores?

Elsewhere, TVM's cameraman clearly wasn't having the best of nights. Somehow he managed to miss Rebecca Ferguson altogether as she first stepped onto the stage - managing to focus on the space between her and Calleja instead. (But he did make up for this error by catching PN leader Simon Busuttil in flagrante delicto, fiddling with his mobile phone in the front row only seconds after being ordered over the loudspeaker to switch the damn thing off).

Over to the performances now and, as usual, Calleja made it a point of bringing together an occasionally unlikely ensemble of local and foreign talent to back him up. If the point of the exercise is to simply drown out all accompanying voices it was (almost) successful. Of the various guests who were brave enough to risk a duet, only Riccardo Cocciante could actually compete with the tenor for volume and range - even if only just. But the juxtaposition did occasionally work well in other, unexpected ways: Rebecca Ferguson and Calleja produced a surprisingly delightful rendition of Can't Help Falling In Love - complete with children's choir for added sugar - which reduced the entire Elvis brigade in the audience (including all Malta's bus and taxi drivers) to a sobbing mess.

Similarly, the duet with Gianluca Bezzina - in which the late Dominic Grech's classic Xemx was given a rather unlikely operatic once over - was by Calleja's own admission an 'experiment'. Clearly Gianluca thought it was a success, as he smiled throughout the entire performance. And throughout the subsequent standing ovation... and backstage, when caught unawares on camera... and... I don't know, has this man ever been seen without a smile on his face? If so, someone please take a photo and send it to us. It would make a good news story for the paper.

Coming back to duets, not all such experiments were necessarily as successful. It was a nice touch to bring in local electronic DJ duo Tenishia to broaden the musical range a little; but again, the exercise only served to amplify background noise as much as possible, thus providing Calleja with yet another opportunity to simply produce more decibels than the all competition. Which of course he did, in his usual, completely effortless way.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the night was in fact the sheer effortlessness with which Calleja simply strolled through every vocal challenge. While conductor Steve Mercurio spun off into an aerobic workout on stage - at one point he looked like he'd just hit a home run for the New York Yankees - and Cocciante practically melted into a puddle of sweat onto his piano keyboard, Calleja seemed unperturbed by the heat or indeed by anything else. He could almost have been singing to himself in the shower, with everything else - the accompanists, the orchestra, the fireworks, the applause, etc - reduced to background hubbub.