Eating in Valletta, the capital of Malta, you are reminded that the nation is a cultural melting pot: Greek, Arab and Italian flavours are all detectable in the nation’s cuisine. Architecturally, however, Valletta is more homogeneous. It was originally built by the Knights of St John in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the legacy they left behind is one of Baroque resplendence. The Church Our Lady of Victories, built following the Knights’ victory over the Ottoman Turks during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, houses breathtaking frescoes and paintings. The marble- and gold-lined interior of St John’s Co-Cathedral, which is filled with artefacts donated by the Knights, is home to Caravaggio’s The Beheading of St John the Baptist. The various auberges, which were built to house the Knights according to the language they spoke, remain points of reference in the city.

Kenneth Zammit Tabona © Ray Attard
Kenneth Zammit Tabona
© Ray Attard

All of this, you might think, makes Valletta the obvious place for a festival of Baroque music. But the Valletta International Baroque Festival is a relatively recent creation. Masterminded by Kenneth Zammit Tabona, the Artistic Director of the Teatru Manoel, Malta’s national theatre, it will open its seventh edition in January 2019.

Despite its age, the festival is by now well-established. Its rich programme, which stretches over two weeks and contains up to three concerts a day, has previously included names of Baroque stars including Les Arts Florissant, Philippe Herreweghe and the Ensemble Matheus. Now, it is considering expanding beyond Malta’s capital into other cities. “You usually need five years to establish a festival. After the first edition we were sailing very close to the wind, but one year later we were there,” says Zammit Tabona, speaking via Skype, of the festival's fast rise.

What is the secret to the festival's success? Valletta’s strong Baroque identity, Zammit Tabona says, has been key. Ultimately, however, the city’s infrastructure is its biggest asset. The Teatru Manoel is available for the festival to use free of charge. Built in 1731, this Baroque gem, which has recently been renovated, is one of Europe’s oldest working theatres, according to Zammit Tabona (who should know, considering he is the president of the Association of Historic Theatres in Europe). Should the festival decide to expand outside of Valletta, appropriate venues for smaller concerts will hardly be in short supply. There are apparently 365 churches all over Malta, and Zammit Tabona estimates that 330 of them are Baroque.

The festival was born out of inauspicious circumstances. Valletta currently enjoys status as a 2018 European Capital of Culture. Back in 2011, the country’s authorities were trying to devise a flagship cultural event in order to strengthen its bid. Cue the arrival of the European Union Baroque Orchestra in the same year, which was to perform an open-air concert as part of the Teatru Manoel’s summer festival. It brought with it a collection of historical instruments, including a harpsichord and theorbo (the likes of which, Zammit Tabona explains, Malta had never seen). But the extreme July heat meant their instruments would not stay in tune. Zammit Tabona had a brainwave. If Valletta was to hold a festival, it should happen in the more temperate winter months.

Considering that tourism in Malta lulls during the period – Zammit Tabona calls it a “shoulder month” – the government was more inclined to back the initiative. It did so generously, meaning that the festival is able to provide artists with lavish hospitality compared to many other festivals. It is hardly surprising, then, that performers keep coming back for more.

Valletta © Courtesy of Teatru Manoel
© Courtesy of Teatru Manoel
Zammit Tabona’s professional background, which includes 29 years working for Malta’s Mid-Med bank, the last ten years of which involved managing sponsorships, left him “feeling horribly bored.” But it set him up well for the work of marketing, fundraising and a managing staff that comes with directing a festival. While working for the bank, Zammit Tabona split his spare time between painting (he is a well-known artist in Malta) and writing.

The latter pastime was key to his musical education. At the age of 17, Zammit Tabona read a classical music review in the Malta Times that he profoundly disagreed with, and so wrote a letter to the paper stating his opinion. To his horror, the paper printed his letter. Six months later, it asked him to fill in for the critic he had previously contradicted, who had been taken ill. Attending the concert for his first review left him “practically sick with fear... I remember all of these crusty critics on the front row just looking at me. I must have written that first review 20 times,” he says. It must have gone well. Zammit Tabona soon had a regular writing job at the Malta Times, and researching articles gave him the desire to learn more and more. It also encouraged him to look at music from the perspective of the audience, which has informed his approach to managing classical music organisations.

When, in 2010, Zammit Tabona joined the board of the Teatru Manoel, he found an institution that was “being run in a very lackadaisical way.” Its programme, which features music, theatre and dance, offered only one opera a year at that time. Now it offers three, and is in the middle of a Da Ponte trilogy. In particular, Zammit Tabona is seeking to make programming more fresh. He was unfazed when about 60% of the audience, by his own reckoning, were vexed by British director Jack Furness’ contemporary production of Don Giovanni. The theatre’s new production of Cendrillon, written by the Maltese composer Isouard for Paris in 1810, will be a season highlight.

A performance at the 2018 festival © Courtesy of Teatru Manoel
A performance at the 2018 festival
© Courtesy of Teatru Manoel
Programming for the Valletta Baroque Festival is if anything more adventurous. Do they have a theme? “God forbid,” replies Zammit Tabona, who clearly prefers not to feel restricted in his artistic decisions. In the next edition, Jean-Christophe Spinosi and the Ensemble Matheus present two concerts, one of which is entitled “Barock ‘n’ Roll” and will match Baroque music with sounds inspired by rock. The concert is the product of Zammit Tabona’s recent attempts to open up Baroque music to new audiences: two years ago, it presented The Beatles played in a Baroque style. On another occasion, the Goldberg Variations were played on an accordion. “I take my lead from Bach,” Zammit Tabona states grandly. “Bach transcribed a lot himself, including Vivaldi. He certainly wouldn’t have been averse to his music being played on a Steinway D if it had been available.”

So the Valletta Baroque Festival is not exactly into historically informed practice, then? Wrong. The festival’s own orchestra, VIBE (Valletta International Baroque Ensemble), specialises in HIP, and in the next festival will perform two concerts. Other highlights include Fahmi Alqhai, who plays Bach on a viola da gamba, conductor Giulio Prandi and his acclaimed Ghislieri Choir and Consort with a performance of Pergolesi’s Mass in D major, and The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which will perform Bach’s St Matthew Passion. And, as usual, there will be the Goldberg Variations – a piece Zammit Tabona confesses he loves – which has made it into every festival so far, albeit in performances on a variety of instruments. “This work would really have to be my Desert Island Disc. The whole Ring cycle would just tire me out,” he says.

And that is just a flavour of the festival’s offering. Clearly, there is another reason that audiences flock to Malta’s capital city in January: because the festival has something for all Baroque lovers.


See the full listings for the 2019 Valletta Baroque Festival. 

This article was sponsored by Mirabelle Communications.