The Baroque heart of Valletta | Kenneth Zammit Tabona

Ahead of its fourth edition, Artistic Director of the Valletta International Baroque Festival Kenneth Zammit Tabona speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about how this ‘celebration of the baroque medium’ has managed to sustain its momentum, as aided in no small part by the city of Valletta itself

Kenneth Zammit Tabona • Photo by Ray Attard
Kenneth Zammit Tabona • Photo by Ray Attard

How would you describe the track record of the Baroque Festival so far?

The festival has indeed moved from strength to strength since its launch in 2013. We are about to plunge into the fourth edition with a programme containing a galaxy of stars led by the living legends of the baroque world; Jordi Savall and Philippe Herreweghe.

In the past editions we have engaged top flight artists like countertenors Max Emmanuel Cencic and Iestyn Davies, sopranos Carolyn Sampson and Mhairi Johnson, tenor Nicholas Mulroy and conductors like Harry Bicket, Steven Devine, Herve Niquet and Leonardo Garcia Alarcon. Internationally in three short years our festival is today considered to be one of the best festivals in Europe with its director now on the Board of Directors of REMA; Reseau Europeen de Musique Ancienne.

We have given birth to the festival’s own ensemble, the Valletta International Baroque Ensemble – popularly known as VIBE – which contributes two major concerts to the festival each year besides periodical masterclasses throughout the year followed by specialised concerts.
It is our intention to up the frequency of these concerts and hence increase the level of baroque musicianship required in this day and age in the ever-evolving baroque idiom.

Given that this will be the fourth edition of the festival, how do you strive to keep the event fresh?

Internationally although we are ‘Johnny come latelys’, the Maltese music in the local archives is a great academic attraction and we are riding the crest of the wave of ‘rediscovery’ that is taking place all over the world where archives are being raided and scoured to produce operas, oratorios and a host of other musical forms. Those who attended last year’s festival will recall the electrifying oratorio ‘Il Diluvio Universale’ by Michelangelo Falvetti a 17th Century Sicilian composer who was hitherto unknown up to a couple of years ago.

Again I feel that being as imaginative as possible in one’s programming ensures that the festival remains perennially interesting and aesthetically stimulating.

Like the great Johann Sebastian Bach I love transcriptions and interesting interpretations. In many cases it was these transcriptions like those by Busoni and Stokowsky that kept baroque music alive at a time when it was considered passé.

The decision taken by the Artistic Director of the Malta Philharmonic and myself to programme 20th century music that was ‘inspired by the baroque idiom’ was received very well last year and we this year have a lovely selection of music by Richard Strauss and Ottorino Respighi under the baton of Philip Walsh.

Have you seen a change in the audience at all? What kind of people has the festival been attracting?

In four years, I have met many people from Malta and abroad who attend the Baroque Festival almost exclusively. While the local audience transcends to most of the musical events organised by the theatre, I have made friends with a good number of music lovers from overseas who have made January into a yearly appointment in Malta.

My general impression is that most people who come to this festival come because of Valletta’s unique ambience; its churches, theatre and museums. They are highly cultured individuals with a keen appreciation of music and art not to mention history too. All of which Valletta and the festival has in abundance.

Would you say the festival is helping the local music scene too? 

The festival is certainly raising the general benchmark of local music making as more and more Maltese musicians take up the baroque challenge. It has also placed Malta on the international circuit as agents and musicians from all over Europe and even America write in to take part in our festival. The success of this festival has pervaded the general artistic level of music making in Malta.

How do you think the festival fits into the overall plan for Valletta 2018 and the Arts Council’s plans for 2020?

The festival promises to live on into the years of Valletta 2018 into 2020 and beyond. If handled right and nurtured as it should be, the ideal formula that made this festival what it is should logically ensure that it will become one of the great festivals of Europe, comparable to festivals that have been running for over half a century like Ambronay and La Chaise Dieu. As long as Valletta remains Valletta, the festival is destined to endure.

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