Postcard from Gozo8:58, 15th August 2018
Claire Jackson reports from the Victoria International Arts Festival.
Gozo sits to the north of the Maltese archipelago; a hilly, arid island that blends influences from Northern Africa and Western Europe, particularly Sicily. Its language melds Arabic pronunciation with Italian dialect, captured by a Maltese alphabet. Cultural life is dominated by Catholicism – the majority of the 32,000-strong population are Roman Catholics – and sacred music is high on the agenda.
It was fitting, then, for Gozo’s premiere event, the Victoria International Arts Festival (VIAF), to open with A Canticle Cantata Op 42 composed by festival director Joseph Vella. It’s a large-scale work for a relatively small island to put on, and the primary festival venue, St George’s Basilica in Victoria, was packed to its 600-seat capacity. And while it may seem a little gauche for a director to programme his own work for opening night, Vella deserves the spotlight: he has directed the festival for its entire 20-year history, and this year is a celebratory affair.
‘I don’t always include my own work,’ says Vella, slightly abashed. ‘Groups from abroad often play a piece of mine, but I don’t programme it generally.’ Vella, who was born on Gozo and is Malta’s best-known composer and curator, established the VIAF as part of the island’s feast day celebrations.
‘St George’s Basilica was obviously dedicated to the feast of St George, that’s the third Sunday in July. I am also director of the Astra theatre, which has close connections with that church,’ explains Vella. ‘The idea was to add a new dimension to the traditional feast: Maltese feasts are a unique experience with fireworks and bands – it’s a colourful affair. I wanted to introduce a different cultural aspect.’
The first few instalments were week-long programmes, and ended on the Monday before the feast. ‘It has expanded and expanded and today it is an international event; we get musicians from all over the world,’ smiles Vella. ‘We have choirs from the United States and people coming from Korea, and Europe. We get very good musicians, partly through my connections, but also through word of mouth, from people saying how nice it is here. We are now at the point where we have to be a bit selective!’
Gozo’s architectural landscape is a curious mix of domed churches, ancient forts and angular stone buildings. The horizon is treeless, punctuated by cacti whose prickly pear fruit are used to make liquor (it’s delicious). St George’s Basilica is a typical Gozian church, with an awe-inspiring gilt décor and mesmerising stained glass windows. Most of the concerts take place in the main body of the building (which reaches temperatures so high it makes the Royal Albert Hall during the Proms seem positively ambient). This year, the Sistine Chapel Choir made a special appearance; the Vatican has links with Gozo, with Pope John Paul II making a coveted visit to the island in 1990.
Extraordinarily, this concert – and the whole festival – is free to attend. Locals have the opportunity to reserve a seat for the duration. ‘We have a core of people who are regulars,’ explains Vella. ‘For a small fee [around 120 euros] they can reserve a seat for the duration of the festival. There’s 40 concerts so it’s three euros per concert.’ The fact the events are not ticketed also means that passersby in St George’s Square are often tempted in on the spur of the moment, particularly when some performers – such as the University of Delaware Choir – give an al fresco sample of their programme to advertise what’s in store!
So how does Vella manage it? ‘We get a nice subsidy from the Arts Council,’ he says. ‘It’s still a shoestring budget for five weeks of concerts; we don’t have that much money, but we don’t pay a fee to musicians. We pay flights and full board and people enjoy coming here. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do it. We do have some sponsorship from banks and some donations, but it wouldn’t give us the budget to pay high fees.’ Because the festival is free to attend, most of the featured musicians are happy to consider their concert as part of a ‘working holiday’, fuelled by the desirable climate and pleasant surroundings.
As well as the soloists and ensembles that Vella invites personally, the IVAF works with several music competitions including the Austrian Prima la Musica and the National Music Competition in Norway – part of the prize is to perform at the festival. ‘This has been in place for ten years,’ says Vella. ‘We also have close relations with EMCY [European Union of Music Competitions for Youth] – that gives us some status and artistic satisfaction.’
Our interview is interrupted by a lady who stops to tell Vella how much she is enjoying this year’s event. Vella chats amicably for a few moments. This is typical of Gozo, he explains; there is real sense of community surrounding the festival. As well as the the larger choral performances, the event offers plenty of chamber concerts – these are held in the chapel at the side of the Basilica.
The pianist Biliana Tzinlikova is becoming a regular fixture at the chapel concerts, having been invited to perform at VIAF in 2016 after Sabine Coelsch-Foisner from the University of Salzburg recommended her to Vella after hearing her presentation of sonatas by Franz Anton Hoffmeister, a contemporary of Mozart. This year, Tzinlikova performed an engaging solo recital curated around dance, featuring works by JS Bach and Chopin, as well as rarities by Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) and Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983). Tzinlikova also performed as part of a trio with violist Thomas Riebl and cellist Susanne-Ehn Riebl. ‘Gozo is a beautiful piece of our Earth, I have fallen in love with this place,’ says Tzinlikova. ‘The special atmosphere of the chapel-hall is very inspiring.’
Attendees seem to agree: ‘We get lots of holidaymakers,’ says Vella, ‘Some people from England and Italy plan their holidays to coincide with the festival.’ Given the VIAF’s heady mixture of guaranteed sunshine, intelligent curation and a fabulous concert venue, it’s easy to see why.