If we consider the word “festival” and its synonym “feast”, the Valletta International Baroque Festival, which started on 9 January and continues to 26 January, has proven to be a sumptuous feast, nay, a veritable banquet.

Claudia Tabone and Clare Ghigo with Jeune Orchestre Atlantique on stage at Teatru Manoel © Valletta International Baroque Festival / Mario Mintoff
Claudia Tabone and Clare Ghigo with Jeune Orchestre Atlantique on stage at Teatru Manoel
© Valletta International Baroque Festival / Mario Mintoff

The festival has brought Baroque music to a Baroque city. It is the city’s first, hopefully not the last, festival of music of the Baroque period. The concerts have provided a kaleidoscope of music of the period featuring both local and international talent.

I had the taste of the first course of this sumptuous feast on Tuesday 15. The fare was sections of fine young musical talent with a rich Maltese sauce.

The programme was provided by youth orchestra Jeune Orchestre Atlantique. The orchestra, created in 1996, gathers young musicians and students, representing about 20 different nationalities, who follow a comprehensive training programme on performance using period instruments.

The international orchestra presented a unique programme of previously unperformed music by Maltese composers, as well as works from the Bach legacy.

The highlight of the concert was the première of several works by Maltese composers. The programme commenced with the overture and duet “Padre, addio” from the opera Pelopide (1747) by Girolamo Abos (1715–60).

The opera, written for the Teatro della Torre Argentina in Rome, comes from the period when Abos was employed at the Neapolitan Conservatorio Sant’ Onofrio. Abos, Maltese by birth, lived for the majority of his life in Naples so his music very much reflects the Neapolitan opera seria style of the period. This work was also an opportunity to present two of Malta’s young, talented singers: soprano Claudia Tabone and alto Clare Ghigo.

Polyphony was introduced to Malta in the mid 16th century, when two cappelle were created, that of Mdina Cathedral and the other of the Order of the Knights of St John in Valletta. The original Maestri di cappella were Sicilian and the music was imported and reflected the styles of Italian composers of the period. The first recorded Maltese maestro was Giuseppe Balzano (1616–1700), whose motet Beatus vir (1652) is the oldest extant work by an identified Maltese composer. There was a very important relationship with Naples in the 18th century. The Chapter sent local musicians to study in conservatories and recruited the highest level of musicians, especially castrati, for the cappella musicale. During this period the cappella was also enriched by the addition of wind instruments. After 1711, the cathedral employed only Maltese maestri, encouraging them to advance their musical studies in Neapolitan conservatories. The result of this was that the music composed and performed in Malta during the Baroque period reflected the established Neapolitan styles of the time.

In Malta, maestri were chosen only by their reputations at home or abroad. The repertoire reflects an awareness of Italian musical styles, beginning with Roman and Venetian polyphony in the 17th century and shifting emphasis to solo voices and instruments in the 18th, especially under the two most prominent maestri, Benigno Zerafa (1726–1804) and Francesco Azopardi (1748–1809).

The other revival works on the programme were two arias from the Dixit Dominus a due cori of 1756 by Benigno Zerafa. Zerafa’s music reflects the Neapolitan galant style of the mid-century. The arias come from an autograph score which is kept in the Archives of the Cathedral of Malta. Zerafa was a gifted composer. 170 of his works are extant, all sacred, and encompassing virtually all contemporary genres as well as the stile antico. Like the Abos excerpts, these two arias have never been performed in Malta within living memory.

Also performed was the Sinfonia in D by Francesco Azopardi. The music of Azopardi, a theorist as well as a composer, reflects the styles of the late Baroque and early Classical periods.

Other works included in the programme were from the Bach legacy, by both J.S. and C.P.E. Violinist Stéphanie-Marie Degand, conductor and leader of the orchestra, performed as a soloist the Violin Concerto in G minor by J.S. Bach. Soloist for the Flute Concerto in D minor by C.P.E. Bach was Mathias von Brenndorff.

This was also a wonderful opportunity to experience Baroque music in Malta’s unique Baroque theatre, Teatru Manoel, built in 1731 by António Manoel de Vilhena, Grand Master of the Knights of Malta. This theatre, one of the oldest still in operation, has been recently restored to its original glory.

The playing of the young and dynamic orchestra was magnificent and well balanced. The brilliant performance of the soloist in the C.P.E. Bach work, Mathias von Brenndorff, left the audience in raptures. The voices of two soloists in the Abos and Zerafa works complemented each other well and were accompanied perfectly by the orchestra.

This superb concert certainly whetted my appetite for the second course, which was held on the following evening.

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