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The piquant celebration of Valletta’s baroque tradition and identity that’s rising to star status.

Phoenicia meets with Valletta Baroque Festival Artistic Director, Kenneth Zammit Tabona - Monday, 12th August 2013, Malta

Elevator doors open directly into a space packed with fabulous Maltese antiques, assorted paintings drip from the walls, a number of dignified periodicals rest around the expansive sitting room where Valletta Baroque Festival artistic supremo Kenneth Zammit Tabona ushers me to a comfortable sofa, which I later understand is his favourite perch generously vacated for a guest. An apartment with this mode of entry is an unfailing signifier of the luxury that awaits, but, in this case, I only get a faint glimpse as Kenneth scuttles off down a long richly-adorned corridor to brew much needed coffee before we nestle down to the task at hand. My mind wanders for a moment to Gianni Versace's original natal home in Reggio, many similarities to this one.

 Looking lean and well groomed, Zammit Tabona moves about the space with a confidence that’s tinged with grace and endowed with frenetic energy, shaking me from the Versace reverie. We immediately launch into a conversation about the processes of the painter and I learn that Kenneth has been doodling since the age of five "or less", although his first exhibition came in 1992, at the tender age of thirty five and that it took him a couple of years to build up a body of work he was satisfied to exhibit. That his name is synonymous with painting for most of the local population does not deter him from indulging in other artistic and intellectual passions, and he is a published author, illustrator and musician, alongside his role in conceiving and launching Malta's newest international festival - the aptly named Valletta Baroque Festival. To this we turn our attention.

 Countless Maltese exaggerate or fetishise their workload, but not Zammit Tabona, he downplays it by narrating charming stories about the 2012 inaugural festival which saw 6000 neatly tailored bums on seats and brought over 700 visitors to our shores in the depths of winter. He is a creative force of nearly absurd proportions (see above), and he’s got full-fledged careers going at fever pitch in at least three of those disciplines. When he turns his capacities to something, there are no half-measures. This is a life dedicated to enfusing others with a love for art in every form.

 "Malta is rich with a very talented nucleus of first-rate musicians. I have been reviewing most them at the Manoel Theatre since I was seventeen, never dreaming that I would be so involved. The thing about all great art is...look, this festival shows the beauty of our heritage, Valletta is a marvel, and it celebrates music, what more could anyone want? The thrill of the live performance, the world's best baroque musicians in Malta for two weeks performing in our greatest assets, endless recitals, performances, concerts, masterclasses and workshops. I can't wait for it all to start again, just a couple of weeks after Christmas, the 2014 Festival includes twenty-three great performances, three Toi Toi sessions and a Baroque Costume Ball in just over two weeks.”

 Resisting the immediate gratification culture of our generation is the combative force behind Zammit Tabona's work. The resulting alternative - a hands-on, blood-sweat-and-tears work ethic - has laid the formidable foundation of his boundless career. Citing an "apprenticeship" with Guiseppe Archidiacono, he learned early on that continuous practice of art with his own hands as the only way forward. "I still believe that, our young musicians have incredible opportunities to hone their skills with these visiting masters, and the pace of development for our Valletta Baroque Festival Ensemble has been accelerated due to this access. You have to remember that the ensemble was formed less than a year ago, its remarkable how they are growing thanks to the cross-fertilisation of the festival."

 "The Valletta Baroque Festival Ensemble was born out of a cultural need for Malta to have its own ensemble specifically focused on the study and performances of baroque music, including a rich repertoire of Maltese baroque works. The ensemble consists of predominantly Maltese musicians, guided by four foreign baroque specialists, it's very exciting," he enthuses.

 Is the Valletta Baroque Festival his most personal project to date? “Valletta Baroque Festival is a really unique experience,” says Zammit Tabona. “It was the sort of thing where everybody contributed in places that they ordinarily normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to do so. It was a real collaborative effort.” This approach to festival directing helped Kenneth land a cast for the 2014 festival loaded with international talent, performers include artists such as Max Emmanuel Cencic, one of Europe’s leading countertenors and Malta’s own home-grown talents including Gillian Zammit, Clare Massa, Nicholas Mulroy, Albert Buttigieg, the Anon and Goldberg Ensembles under the direction of Michael Laus and the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra; oh, and did I mention Bach’s great B Minor Mass performed by the world-famous The English Concert at St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Bach also features in an astounding concert featuring all six Brandenburg Concertos by Concerto Koln and Music from the Habsburg Court by the Viennese Concilium Musicum."

 “My only goal is to make something that’s powerful, special, an art piece,” he confides. “The only thing that matters is authenticity. Those who take in the glorious performances at The Manoel Theatre, St. John's Co-Cathedral, and the many other satellite performance venues opened up to the Baroque Festival, including the President's Palace, multiple baroque churches and various other palazzos – we celebrate Malta’s capital city that stands at the crossroads of the continents of Europe, Africa and Asia."

 “I’m really happy,” Zammit Tabona muses. “I had a list of things at the beginning of the summer and they’re all checked off. I can’t wait for the next festival, the forthcoming edition's programme will heavily feature French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau - it's his 250th anniversary, perhaps we will even bring Mezzo TV back to cover the 2014 festival, I'm working hard on that now. That’s what I love the most: the part when you get everything starting to fall into place. One of the most exciting projects is the world premiere of the parody of the opera Hippolyte et Aricie performed with live singers and musicians and with almost life-size marionettes. This is a result of a collaboration with the renowned Centre de Musique de Versailles.”

 Valletta, Malta’s baroque capital city and a UNESCO World heritage site, will be hosting the second edition of the Valletta International Baroque Festival sponsored by the Phoenicia Hotel between January 10 and 26, 2014, further information is available from www.vallettabaroquefestival.com.mt


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