|La Stella Symphonic Band Concert|
It can rightly be said that 40 years ago, when Joseph Vella was installed at the helm of the La Stella Band, he started at the top and worked his way up….taking the band with him, and the La Stella Society as well!
On Saturday 20th November, the numerous patrons and admirers at the comfortable, client–friendly La Stella Theatre auditorium, boasting the best acoustics on the island, could safely vouchsafe for the above statement. The chief characteristics of the La Stella Band were all there, plus the debonair flair which is associated with ensembles of the professional type. I am referring to the trademark warm timbre of the brass, the crisp articulation of the winds, and the overall homogeneity of sound coupled with the drive and verve originating from the essential, unadorned, yet on-the-dot style of conducting which the fortunate instrumentalists of the La Stella band, and not only, have been accustomed to these past 40 years, with Joseph Vella at the helm. Secure and inspiring, Prof. Vella knows his Band and his Band knows him. Patrons know what to expect and they have never been disappointed, least of all last Saturday, when the Band reached hitherto unscaled heights, with a superb performance of the Rimsky-Korsakov’s notoriously treacherous Caprice Espagnol. But I start at the end! Back to the beginning…
The evening started off with a concise, yet effective, introduction by Orietta Gatt. The first piece, the Overture of the Opera Rienzi by Wagner, the master of the Romantic idiom, blending strength with tenderness, revealed the excellent mood of the Band: from the clarion trumpet call to the staid prayer, and the defiant battle hymn, closing with the dazzling military march. The rapport between the conductor and the Band was almost palpable, and the slightest flicker of the baton brought out an immediate response from the band. A delightful 2nd piece, Free World Fantasy by contemporary Dutch composer J. de Haan, provided a very welcome balance with the previous Wagnerian piece of symphonic proportions. Wagner’s majestic soundscape gave way to a dreamlike gossamer fabric of sound, replete with colorful effects, not devoid of the unmistakable improvisatory feel so peculiar to pop music.
Verdi’s beautifully haunting melodies which have secured La Traviata the enviable place of the most performed opera ever, took over from Haan’s Fantasy, to recall the two memorable performances of the opera staged at the Teatru Astra just a month ago, signaling the start of the 8th edition of Festival Mediterranea. This fantastic selection is the stuff of genius, and the stuff of legend. It brings out Verdi’s uncanny knack for the dramatic, without being overdramatic, which is no small thing! It is true that Verdi, like Shakespeare for that matter, borrowed the stories, but he paid back handsomely, and in such a way that had it not been for the borrowing, the original would definitely have gone unnoticed! The adaptation for the Band enables the ensemble to stand out in toto and singulariter. The La Stella soloists, not only gave a very good account of themselves, but also confirmed the tradition of excellence of the La Stella soloists since its inception in 1863. Mario Galea (clarinet), Michel Refalo (trumpet), Ino Attard (althorn), and Anton Sacco (euphonium) distinguished themselves for the beauty of tone, stylistic interpretation and aplomb with which they poured forth the passionate, yet restrained, melodies capturing the shifting moods of the hapless couple Violetta and Alfredo to perfection. Soloist George Camilleri who has established a very solid reputation as one of Malta’s leading euphonium players, displaying a superb technique and fine musicianship, showcased R. Deronge’s virtuosic piece, aptly titled Walking on Music. It really had that effect: George Camilleri made it seem so effortless a task. In perfect tandem with the seasoned Joseph Vella, who set the right tone for the accompanying Band, George Camilleri polished this gem of a piece to a very high degree indeed.
By now the band had reached such a high level of performance that Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol sounded as a matter of course!! It was indeed a tribute to the indefatigable Joseph Vella who coaxed the very best out of the La Stella band, navigating the constantly shifting tempi with admirable ease and steady hand, the mark the of master. It is no wonder that this tour-de-force had never been attempted before on Gozo, and seldom on Malta. Rimsky-Korsakov, like his Russian compatriots, is well known for the excitement, unpredictability, dynamism and splendour of his compositions and the intricacies of his orchestrations. This is indeed a brilliant composition, almost sublime in its cheekiness! Solo instruments and small groups needle the larger ensemble, which reacts with unabashed viciousness: it was all there: passion and meekness. It is no small thing to recall that the great Tchaikovsky, on seeing the score before its premiere, ended his letter to Rimsky-Korsakov with the declaration, “Your Spanish Capriccio is a colossal masterpiece of instrumentation, and you may regard yourself as the greatest master of the present day”. The Band did itself proud: never wavering in the least, with all the sections rising to the occasion, not least the percussion. The effective interjections by Mario Galea (clarinet) and George Refalo (horn) blended perfectly with the surging rhythms and soaring sound of the band leading to the splendid and rousing finale which had the audience on its feet.
Joseph Vella is a musician of many parts: like a rare diamond, the facets release an arresting shine, not undimmed, but enhanced, with the passage of time. Indeed time is greatness’ best friend, as it is mediocrity’s worst enemy. It will ever be to the supreme credit of the La Stella’s committee 40 years ago, who stood for the engagement of the then 28 year old musician and composer Joseph Vella, as conductor of the La Stella Band. It was one of the committee’s finest decisions, and one of the La Stella Society’s finest hours. (I may be excused for borrowing from the master wordsmith!!). Down to earth in his approach, and possessing a razor sharp musical mind, Joseph Vella scaled the heights on his own merits as a composer, with an international reputation, and conductor who introduced to the Maltese public such works as Beethoven’s colossal 9th Symphony and Orff’s Carmina Burana, among others. Not the one to baulk at challenges, Prof. Vella has led the Band with his customary zeal, dedication and professionalism, apart from adorning the archives with a vast repertoire of compositions ranging from band marches to symphonic works. For the splendid occasion, Prof. Vella composed a most effective Overture titled Ludus Tonalis revealing his penchant for endearing melody, compositional prowess, intimate and inimitable knowledge of the each and every instrument, and the innate grasp of the whole. This glorious piece, followed by the Band’s Hymn by ex-maestro Giuseppe Giardini Vella, and Joseph Vella’s Innu lil Ghawdex and the national anthem brought to a fitting finale what can be described as a landmark concert. Effective lighting system expertly handled by George Zammit, and apt screen projections meticulously prepared by Andrew Formosa and George Apap, enhanced the evening’s performance. Maria Frendo prepared the programme notes with her customary thoroughness and insight.
It was indeed an evening to be proud of: an evening when one felt proud to belong to such a prestigious musical society whose officials at the helm always delivered with style, aiming for the best, and reaching the mark. President Paul Zammit, flanked by secretary, Dolindo Cassar, presented a gift to Prof. Vella complimenting him for his superb stewardship, and auguring him more fruitful years at the helm of the island’s leading Band. The Band and the guests, led by the Hon. Minister for Gozo, Giovanna Debono, were hosted by the committee to a reception in the Gisueppe Giardini Hall.
Photos: Joe Attard