Baroque In The City

Marie-Claire Grima - 10th December 2017

Kenneth Zammit Tabona, artistic director of the Manoel Theatre and founder of the Valletta International Baroque Festival, talks about the festival’s journey so far, the enduring appeal of Baroque, and what lies ahead for the Manoel Theatre.

“The funny thing is that in Malta we’re surrounded by Baroque – Baroque churches, Baroque palaces, a Baroque capital city, Baroque festas, even; but the music had fallen by the wayside,” says Kenneth Zammit Tabona, the artistic director of the Manoel Theatre who has been the face of the Valletta International Baroque Festival ever since its first edition in 2013. “The Baroque Festival and I have grown together – I used to call it my baby but it’s beyond the toddling stage now! My own knowledge has grown with it; it’s been a learning curve all the way through, and there are always new things to discover.

This year’s edition of the Valletta International Baroque Festival will run from 13th January to 27th January 2018, with concerts and performances held in a number of venues in Valletta, with the Manoel Theatre as the linchpin of it all. Mr Zammit Tabona adores Valletta, and says fervently that it could not be a more perfect city for a Baroque festival. “The formula for the festival was just right because it’s Valletta. It’s absolutely unique – a land-locked, sea-locked city that can’t shrink or grow – it remains intact and integral, just as it was designed by Lapparelli."

Kenneth Zammit Tabona

"There are dozens of Baroque festivals in Europe but very few that have within spitting distance, an 18th century court theatre, a church like St John’ Co-Cathedral, the Salon at the Archaelogical Museum, the churches, the palaces, and the overall ambiance of Valletta. People attending the festival can wake up in the city, go to a concert, go to lunch, go back to their hotel rooms to rest, have dinner and then go out for another concert. It’s just so comfortable. The Manoel, of course, is the centrepiece of everything – this uniquely Baroque gem that we have.” However, the festival will also be venturing out of Valletta this year, with venues including Verdala Castle in Buskett, The Aula Capitulare in Mdina Cathedral, The Metropolitan Cathedral in Mdina, Ta’ Sarria church in Floriana, and the Malta Maritime Museum and the Collegiate Church of St Laurence in Birgu.

One of the most enthralling things about Baroque music for Mr Zammit Tabona is ‘the voyage of rediscovery’ – “There’s so much baroque music that was written for kings, princes, dukes, counts, cardinals, that wasn’t meant for the public, and that is only coming to light now.” On the other hand, he’s fascinated by new Baroque compositions, works inspired by Baroque, as well as variations on the most well-known pieces. In fact, some of the highlights of this  year’s edition include sonatas by Scarlatti performed on guitar by Simon Schembri, the Monteverdi Vespers  performed by VIBE (Valletta International Baroque Ensemble), Baroque meets Jazz with Sandro Zerafa and a revisitation of Bach’s musical offering by the cutting-edge Het Collectief.

Teatru Manoel - Photo by Paul Camilleri

Furthermore, it has become an annual tradition for a new piece by a contemporary composer to be commissioned for the festival – this year, it’s 'Partita', a concertante for oboe, clarinet and orchestra by 23-year-old composer Euchar Gravina, which will be premiered by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra on the 17 January. “Putting together the Baroque festival like this is much like creating a painting – it only makes sense when it’s completed, when I realise why I wanted to take that direction. One is always learning, and changing. What I don’t want is for the Baroque festival to become a museum piece – it must be alive, with modern twists and interesting variations.”

After the Baroque Festival, the Manoel will barely have time to catch its breath before launching into its annual opera. This year, it is Don Giovanni, one of the three productions that came about as a result of the collaboration by Mozart and the Italian librettist Da Ponte. It will be directed by Jack Furness, and set in a very film-noirish, 1950s New York. “Don Giovanni is the ultimate mascalzone – he’s really wicked,” says Mr Zammit Tabona, his eyes glinting. “And this production is quite unlike anything we’ve ever seen in Malta. Opera is the height of absurdity, it takes you to another world, it’s the top genre, incorporating literature, drama, music, stagecraft, art, choral singing, you name it, it’s in it. People’s expectations are very high, the standard has to be worthy of Mezzo. And we’re working very hard to live up to it – after all, there’s no reason why the premiere location in Malta shouldn’t produce the very highest standard of productions.”

For more information and to view the full programme, visit 

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Baroque In The City