The modernist injection | Ruben Zahra

As Modern Music Days preps for another show at the Manoel Theatre in June, its artistic director Ruben Zahra speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about how ‘Tehillim – 20th Century Masterworks’ will seek to fix a historical gap in Malta’s exposure to modern classical music

The concert will include selected musicians from the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra and the Brno Contemporary Orchestra (pictured)
The concert will include selected musicians from the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra and the Brno Contemporary Orchestra (pictured)

Could you delve a little bit into the main raison d’etre behind Modern Music Days, and how it has evolved since its initial stages to now?

Modern Music Days (MMD) started in 2014 with the mission to promote the performance and understanding of contemporary music and 20th century repertoire in Malta. MMD is organised by a consortium of three partners: Teatru Manoel, the Malta Association for Contemporary Music and the Valletta 2018 Foundation. This initiative has always been part of the culture programme for Valletta 2018 – European Capital of Culture. As artistic director of MMD I wanted to adopt an interdisciplinary approach. This has two main benefits: connecting musicians and composers with other artists; and attracting audiences from different creative areas. For Rhythms of Vision, held in February 2017, we commissioned seven visual artists to create a video for a given piece of music. The video was presented as a backdrop to the live performance of the music at Teatru Manoel. This created an intriguing dialogue between the video narrative and the music. The event attracted an audience interested in contemporary music as well as contemporary art. The same programme without the visual narrative would have attracted a much smaller audience.

“The Maltese public should be exposed to this music in the same manner as it should be exposed to the paintings of Picasso and Miro… or the architecture of Renzo Piano”

Do you think there’s a particular lacuna when it comes to modern and contemporary music in Malta? Why do you think this has happened, and what kind of effect has this had on local musicians and their work?

The answer to this question is a complex one. There is certainly a lacuna when it comes to contemporary music on the local art scene. I often feel like Malta has missed out on a century of music. The innovations of 20th century music bypassed Malta completely. Our theatres were not keeping up to speed with the masterworks of the past century. It’s like going through the sixties and not being aware of The Beatles. What classical music was being performed in Malta in 1917 when there was the riot at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées during the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring? … and in 1941 when Messiaen premiered his “Quartet for the End of Time” while he was a prisoner of war in German captivity? … and in 1950 when Stockhausen presented his electronic music work “Kontakte” in Cologne? It’s not easy to speculate why. The island reality of Malta does not help … but on the other hand Iceland boasts one of the most active avant-garde art scenes.

How does Modern Music Days aim to address this?

One of the objectives with MMD is to present landmark 20th century works in Malta. On June 9 MMD is organising a concert at Teatru Manoel with a programme of four masterworks: “Concerto for 13 instruments” by György Ligeti is one of the most beautiful, engaging and important chamber works of the 20th century; “Tehillim” by Steve Reich is a masterpiece of minimalist music; Britten’s “Sinfonietta Op. 1” is a prodigious work written when the composer was just 18 years old; “Octandre” by Edgard Varèse sounds as radical and avant-garde as when it was written, almost a century ago.

The Maltese public should be exposed to this music in the same manner as it should be exposed to the paintings of Picasso and Miro… or the architecture of Renzo Piano. This repertoire constitutes an unbroken line between Vivaldi and Varèse… Rameau and Reich. However, this project is not just about presenting the music. The concert will include selected musicians from the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra and the Brno Contemporary Orchestra (Czech Republic) under the direction of Pavel Snajdr who is specialised in this repertoire. MMD is creating the opportunity for local musicians to learn how to approach this music by providing the necessary professional coaching and support.

What’s next for Modern Music Days?

On July 27, MMD is presenting a new version of the ballet “Parade” at Teatru Manoel featuring the music of Satie with costume design and scenography inspired by the original Picasso sketches; On September 15, MMD is presenting an interdisciplinary showcase of contemporary music, dance and electronic music as part of the Evenings on Campus series. Furthermore, this year MMD is presenting six concerts in heritage sites across Malta and Gozo. The ethos behind his ‘regional concert series’ is to take music out of the concert hall into the community. The venues have been carefully selected for their unique aesthetics, historical narrative and intimate setting.

In April we premiered a site specific electronic music work by Dutch composer Luc Houtkamp at Ta’ Bistra Catacombs in Mosta in collaboration with Heritage Malta and in May we organised a piano recital at The Victor Pasmore Gallery which inhabits a 1640s-gunpowder magazine (polverista) within Valletta’s outer fortification walls.

On June 23 and 24 the Summer solstice at Mnajdra will feature a concert by trombonist and music archaeologist John Kenny. The music for this unique concert will trace the evolution of the instrument by playing the seashell, a replica of the Celtic war horn known as the “carnyx” up to the modern trombone. On August 11, the courtyard of Castello Lanzun in San Gwann will constitute the stage for a recital of trios for clarinet, violin and piano.

On November 4, two days after All Souls’ Day, the underground Zejtun parish crypt will host a concert of modern string quartets, decked in funereal paraphernalia of black damask and candles.

And finally, the strong, theatrical presence of percussion instruments will become even more dramatic by the vaulted halls of the Citadel in Gozo on November 27 for the grand finale.

 

Tehillim – 20th Century Masterworks is organised by Teatru Manoel, the Malta Association for Contemporary Music and the Valletta 2018 Foundation as part of the culture programme of Valletta 2018 - European Capital of Culture. The concert will take place at the Manoel Theatre, Valletta, on June 9 at 20:30. Bookings: www.teatrumanoel.com.mt

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