Female composers are a rare breed and in these islands an even greater rarity. One of them is Véronique Vella. I have known her for many years, since before she went abroad – she has been living in Scotland for the past 12 years. We have remained in touch on the internet, while I occasionally catch up with her on her visits to Malta, if they coincide with my presence here. One such was her latest when she came over to take part in the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert of works by young composers.
The performance at the Manoel Theatre last Friday was directed by two conductors of the younger generation, namely André-Paul Huber and Michelle Cachia Castelletti. It featured works by seven composers, all but one of whom are Maltese, the others being Marco Fernandez, Paul Portelli, Steven Joseph Psaila, Alistair Attard and Mauro Farrugia and Dr Vella herself. Apart from the latter’s works I am only a little bit familiar with some of Mr Portelli’s works, all of a sacred nature and which he has composed for the Gozitan choir Schola Cantorum Jubilate of Xagħra.
Asking Dr Vella how this concert came about, she said that last year the MPO issued a call for young composers to submit scores with the aim of having the selected works performed by the orchestra on a future date. All successful participants are under 40 years old, with the youngest being 21. It seems that Dr Vella was the only one of them taking part in the concert. Originally trained as a pianist she performed in her own Ritratti, more on which I shall come to below. I asked her how, if at all, she has made her transition from pianist to pianist-composer.
“The strange thing is that so far I have only written one work for solo piano, while Ritratti is a work of about 20 minutes’ duration for piano and orchestra,” she said. When she showed me the score of the work and I saw how the four movements are titled, namely Ħitan, Talba, Karnival and Kavallier, I asked her if the work is as obviously programmatic as it is. “I often find inspiration from elements and features with a Maltese background, colour and feel even when I am away, which probably makes them more deeply felt. Unlike your first guess, the first movement is not about rubble walls or bastions but more my concern for the unbridled development which has marred so much of our landscape. Talba of course refers to the strong influence of religion on Maltese life. Karnival is self-explanatory, colourful and seemingly confused. Kavallier reintroduces a certain dose of sobriety.”
Curious to know more about Ritratti’s structure I asked her whether the piano is just another instrument in the orchestra or whether it has a prominent solo role pitting it against the other instruments. Her reply was of course interestingly illuminating: “In the first two movements the piano is more on an equal footing with the orchestra. Its role changes in the remaining two movements, where even the music becomes sort of wilder – well, Karnival has that kind atmosphere.
“Here the piano assumes more of an individual role and is in a rather turbulent confrontation with the rest. This individuality continues standing out in Kavallier, for which I found a theme from one of the 18th century Maltese branles recorded by Auguste Voigt. I do not quote it directly but use an inversion of it and even the whole nature of the writing changes so there is no turning back to the earlier part of the work but sweeps on and looks ahead.”
With the Maltese environment still holding such a strong attraction for her, and living in a country like Scotland with its own differently beautiful landscape, it is easy to conclude, rightly, that Dr Vella is deeply enamoured with nature and finds it very inspiring.
I asked her if there is any particular genre in which she likes to compose, to which the reply was that as a pianist she has written surprisingly little for her instrument. She has written a lot of chamber works, including a song cycle for mezzo-soprano and piano and so far three works involving an orchestra. In fact orchestral works have brought her great satisfaction. “It was great for me that the first two works I wrote for orchestra have been performed by the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, Glasgow,” she enthused.
Apart from composing, Dr Vella is busy lecturing at Stevenson College, in Edinburgh and at the University of Glasgow. She also finds time to perform both as a soloist and as a member of various chamber ensembles. Her works have been in various parts of Scotland, London, France, Finland, Germany, Austria, the United States and even Malawi. In London, her friend, the very talented mezzo-soprano Clare Ghigo, now studying at the Royal Guildhall School of Music has sung a song cycle of hers. She herself has performed in her own works very widely in Scotland and in Malta at the Sala Isouard, the Music Room at St James Cavalier, the Casino Maltese and lately at the Manoel Theatre. She has not neglected other composers and often plays Debussy, Mendelssohn, Grieg and Turina among others.
Asking if there was anything exciting coming up in the future, the answer was that she has a commission for this year’s Edinburgh (Fringe) Festival. “David Levin, the Israeli poet and theatre director asked me to set a number of his poems to music. I chose to score them for soprano, mezzo-soprano, piano, cello and percussion. These songs, the main theme of which is love, will come in various vocal combinations. I have already finished three of them and most probably it will end up in a cycle of five. I shall be performing the piano part. I have another commission for later this year. The Irish flautist Aisling Agnew has already performed my Wens, which I wrote in 2007. This time I shall write a work for her and for guitarist Matthew McAllister with whom she forms a duo and performs widely.”
Could she work on two different projects at the same time? The answer was she does not do it often but if she does she can cope pretty well. “I can shelve ideas and put them on hold while working on something else; yet I think that they still keep brewing in my mind because when I return to them continuing presents no difficulty. Of course there are times when I am more in the mood to compose than at others. There is also something in the future which involves my husband who is a computer scientist. It is a bit of a rare thing for us to do,” she said, adding jokingly “I am a pretty good cook, but he is really excellent besides being very musical, and to your previous remark as to what it would have been like had he too been a practising professional musician, I would have asked how we would have been able to eat!”
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