Composer-In-Residence Joseph Vella

Joseph Vella

My warmest congratulations go to the Management Committee of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra and the European Foundation for Support of Culture for a very commendable initiative. I am more than pleased and honoured to feature as the guest composer in this first edition of this Festival for Modern Composers.

During the four days of the duration of the Festival, I am glad that to say that no fewer than 35 of my compositions will be having an airing, some as ‘programme’ pieces for 3 of the four evening concerts, and some as ‘obligatory’ pieces during the competition. To interpret the works in the evening concerts there will be some of Malta’s best musicians who have already made a mark for themselves not only in Malta but also abroad. As regards the competition, an opportunity is being given by the organizers for musicians to compete in several categories that cover most of the orchestral spectrum. An evening recital is also being reserved for the winners in this category. All of this has given me a good opportunity to propose to the organizers a wide variety of my works for inclusion in the various aspects of this worthy Festival for contemporary works. These range from solo compositions to larger ensembles – from Meditation for Solo Cello op 125 to the Concerto Barocco op 92 , scored for Bassoon and String Orchestra.

Once again, my heartfelt thanks to the organizers of the Festival of Modern Composers for their efforts to highlight and bring to the notice of the general public the contemporary Maltese musical scene , which quite often seems to be more appreciated abroad than locally. Hopefully there will be more opportunities in this regard.

Mro Joseph Vella

Maltese composer and conductor (b. 1942). Studied with his father, was admitted a Fellow of the London College of Music in 1967, graduated in music from the University of Durham, UK, and continued his studies with Franco Donadoni in Composition and Franco Ferrara in Conducting in Siena, Italy. In 1958 he composed an orchestral suite Three Mood Pieces op 4 (played at the Manoel Theatre, Valletta) which introduced him to the public as a composer. Together with Verena Maschat he set up the School of Music in Valletta in 1972. In 1994 he was appointed Associate Professor of Music at the University of Malta.

Joseph Vella is generally considered to be Malta’s leading contemporary composer. Internationally, he is by far the most widely played..

In his works he has touched on a considerable diversity of styles, all ingrained in a personal idiom stemming mainly from the 20th Century neo-classical movement. As a consequence his music is never consciously ‘nationalistic’, although the Mediterranean influence does emerge in some of his works; for example, the song cycle Seher op 39 for Soprano and orchestra ( the first ever written using the Maltese language as a medium), or Canti op 88 for clarinet, cello and piano. Vella’s language is basically atonal with a tendency to precipitate towards a fundamental note, if not towards a tonal centre. His diversity of style is amply evidenced by comparing the pungent asperity of his String Quartet op 33 (written for and premiered by the Kronos String Quartet ) with the lyricism of the Canticle Cantata op 42 for soloists, mixed choir and orchestra; or the impulsive exuberance of the Violin Concerto op 65 with the ascetic flavour of some of his a cappella works ( Sicut Cervus op 78, Sequenza a 2 op 85). Very typical of Vella’s inclinations is the Sinfonia (con voce femminile) op 48 , where abstract musical lines are woven together round a vague formal foundation through a dramatic exploration of orchestral sonorities. The slow second movement of the Sinfonia introduces a vocal cantilena for high soprano, another arresting example by Vella in which he explores the inherent musicality of the Maltese language. Up to the present time Vella’s official catalogue of works reaches 129 opus numbers. These include 10 concertos (2 for piano, 2 for violoncello, and one each for violin, piccolo, flute, clarinet, bassoon and cornet), 5 symphonies, 5 oratorios, 8 song cycles for different combinations, 2 cantatas, and the ever popular Mass in D op 20, composed to be performed at St. George’s Basilica in Gozo (Malta) on the Saint’s feast day. He has also written a large number (about 150 ) of minor works ( liturgical pieces, hymns, marches, music for wind band, etc.), which are not listed in his official catalogue. Vella’s works have been widely performed (and critically acclaimed) in most European countries, the USA and Japan. In September 2001 he conducted the Prometheus Symphony Orchestra of New York in a programme of his works (Concerto for 2 Pianos Solo, the song cycle “Seher”, the overture “Jubilo”, the Mass for soloists, 4 part choir and orchestra, the choral motet “Domine Jesu Christe”, and the cantata for soloists, choir and orchestra “Laudate Pueri Dominum”) at the Lincoln Center (Alice Tully Hall). With 3 full blown Symphonies and two Sinfoniettas, (one for Strings and another for 13 Woodwind players), to his credit, Joseph Vella can rightly claim to be the first (and up to now, the only) symphonist in the history of Maltese music.

A large number of his works are available on Compact Disc.

As a conductor, Vella has a wide repertoire and has received invitations to appear as a guest and to collaborate with many orchestras ( Malta National Orchestra, Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra, Prometheus Symphony Orchestra of New York,Orquestra Nacional do Porto, Orchestra “Goffredo Petrassi” di Roma, “Gli Armonici” Palermo, The Yamaha Foundation Symphony Orchestra etc.) During his long and fruitful association with the Malta Choral Society (1970 – 1982), he introduced to Malta some of the most outstanding choral works from the traditional and contemporary repertoire; Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, Orff’s Carmina Burana, Britten’s Ballad of Heros, Bruckner’s Te Deum, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms.

Since 1970 Joseph Vella has been the musical director of the Astra Opera Theatre in Gozo, Malta. Over the past years he has conducted very successful productions of Rigoletto, Lucia di Lamermoor, Aida, Nabucco, Macbeth, Turandot, Forza del Destino, Gioconda, Trovatore, Traviata, Un Ballo in Maschera etc, some of these with internationally acclaimed artists like Ghena Dimitrova, Mark Rucker, Cecilia Gasdia, Francesca Patane’ Rumen Doikov, Tiziana Fabbricini, Hao Jiang Tian, etc.

Critics attribute to Vella’s conducting a respect for the composer’s perceived inclinations, manifesting an exceptional feeling for large-scale musical architecture, rhythmic dynamism, and a heightening of the musical line. His sensitivity and instinctive insights as a conductor have been acknowledged by various artists. After a concert at the Manoel Theatre with world famous soprano Cecilia Gasdia she remarked that “Joseph Vella is one of the few conductors I know with whom I would be quite willing to sing a whole opera without even one rehearsal !”.

Vella had the honour of being appointed the first resident conductor of the National Orchestra in Malta.

His pioneering work and continuing interest in early Maltese music has led to a renewed awareness of significant 17th and 18th Cent. compositions, which he has edited, performed and promoted both locally and abroad ( Germany, France, Spain, Greece, Egypt). Vella has rightly been accredited as being the father of the Maltese revival movement.

Joseph Vella is the Artistic Director of the Victoria International Arts Festival, an annual event now in its 15th Edition. The Festival, which is held in the Basilica of St George’s and its environs , around the last half of June and the first half of July, is a five week musical event, mostly of chamber music, which from its modest beginnings in 1998, has now grown into a fully- fledged international event, hosting musicians from all over Europe, the USA and the Far East. He is also the Artistic Director of “Mediterranea” a two week event held at the end of October. Mediterranea is organized by the La Stella Philharmonic Society and is a feast of Mediterranean culture, including archaeology, history, folk traditions, cuisine, etc . The main event of this festival is the annual production of one or two operas. Joseph Vella has been the musical director of the La Stella Band for the last 42 years. He has also occupied the post of Musical Director of the Count Roger Band Club of Rabat (Malta) for the last 37 years.

Joseph Vella has contributed articles to several local and foreign publications, and he has participated and read papers at music conferences in Malta, Italy, France, England, Turkey and Greece.

He has also acted both as Chairman and as a member on various music jury panels for international Music Competitions.