Music under the stars

Music under the stars

When in 1675 Fra Giovanni Bichi purchased land in the Grand Harbour to build a villa to retire in, he must have indeed been a very privileged and very discerning individual. Sited dramatically on the tip of a little promontory straddling Kalkara and Rinella creeks, the villa commands an unrivalled view of the Grand Harbour. One can just try to imagine how wonderful it must have looked in its heyday surrounded by formal gardens in a sort of rus in urbe setting. Since the Bighis themselves, as there were more than one, the original baroque house was given a neo-classic portico when the entire area was converted into a naval hospital in 1829.

Maltese architects Salvatore and Gaetano Xerri under the direction of General Whitmore built outlying pavilions surrounded by rows upon rows of Doric columns. This was the same General Whitmore whose diaries and watercolour sketches provide unique vignettes of life in Malta during the early British period.

Since 1970 and the closure of the naval hospital and the departure of the British forces in 1979, Bighi shared the dire fate of St Angelo, St Elmo and Mtarfa to name but a few; properties that were left to the Maltese government in pristine condition and which were, for some unfathomable reason, allowed to decay into wreck and ruin.

I very much doubt whether there would have been any comprehensible need to build the controversial Mater Dei Hospital had the Maltese government taken over the running of both Mtarfa and Bighi hospitals at the time. Had the government of this country been run as a private enterprise as Lawrence Gonzi is trying to do today by setting financial targets for the chairmen of the various parastatal companies, I am convinced that all this shocking wastage would have never occurred.

I can never understand why this irresponsible neglect was allowed to happen. Now, a quarter of a century later the government and hence the taxpayer is footing the bill to rehabilitate them as, primarily, they are important historical monuments that Malta can ill afford to lose. Where St Angelo is concerned, the nadir was reached when the grounds of Fort St Angelo, easily Malta's most emotively historical landmark, was transformed into a discotheque called Emotions, out of all names.

Today, the Captain's House, formerly the pre-Siege Grandmaster's palace, and the Chapel of St Anne are being occupied and maintained by the Order of St John SMOM and are, barring special occasions, off limits to most of us, just as they were when this great monument was HMS St Angelo. Needless to say the parts that were not leased to the Order are in relative shambles.

The only other Knight whose private villa in Malta rivalled Bichi's in splendour of location is Fra Rafael Spinola's in St Julians Bay. A "tenuta'' on the grandest scale imaginable, with outhouses, pavilions and a chapel to boot. Sadly today the villa has been totally obscured by tall blocks of apartments. Its former garden behind the main villa transmogrified into a football pitch by day and a very down-market bacchanalia by night. As a child, I clearly remember being able to see the Palazzo Spinola from Balluta and even the Tower, dominating the bay which, despite the tasteless depredations, still retains inimitable charm; what has happened to the area is yet another monument to greed and bad planning which unfortunately we will have to live with and in future be very embarrassed by! Mercifully, the areas in, on top of and around the boathouses have been tastefully converted into stylish restaurants.

Today, Villa Bighi, as it is now called, as the original Bichi was, somewhere along the line, corrupted into the more vernacular hard gh, is being rehabilitated and houses various organisations that have undertaken to breathe new life into one of the loveliest spots in the harbour.

Last Thursday, a newly founded chamber ensemble called Promuzika organised a concert in the forecourt of the main villa, under the graceful upthrust of a venerable Phoenix Dactyliphera, as I love to call the classic date palm, and the incredibly beautiful panorama of Valletta from the Upper Barakka to St Elmo as a backdrop. The String Quartet is made up of Maria Conrad and Joanna Aquilina, violins, Sarah Spiteri, viola and Simon Abdilla-Joslin, 'cello were joined by Godfrey Mifsud, clarinet and José Garcia Gutierrez, horn, in various works scored for either of the two last instruments and strings, creating either a Clarinet Quintet or a Horn Quintet.

I have always had a very soft spot for chamber music and try as much as my busy schedule allows, never to miss a performance. I find chamber music so warm and intimate; capable of subtleties and nuances that are sometimes absent from full orchestral works but which are nonetheless splendidly crafted and above all a pleasure to listen to and watch being performed.

I will not go into the merits and demerits of the performance itself; that is within the competence of the official critics, however on the whole I felt that the evening was a resounding success. All I can say with regard to the ensemble is that I look forward to listening to them playing Brahms' Clarinet Quintet in the near future.

I thoroughly enjoyed Mozart's celestial Clarinet Quintet in A Major K581 and also our own Joe Vella's Introduzione, Allegretto and Adagio Cantabile Op 16. This was music that was spontaneous and was clearly studied with love and performed with dedication. At certain points I thought that a little more vim and vigour could have been applied to certain passages and possibly others could have sung a bit more. However, all in all, it was very satisfying.

While the debate of whether or not a new opera house should be built and the eternal question of where the direction of music in Malta should go sporadically sparks, flutters and dies out, we have indeed so many open air locations which could be used throughout the summer months for all sorts of musical events. In fact, we should logically have a far busier musical season in summer than in the traditional autumn and winter ones.

Anyway with the way things are going there is very little chance of any more white elephants being built or purchased at our expense. I am quite sure that after the Brussels gin palace affair the government will be rather sparing with its, and, of course, our money. Mind you, the budgetary allocation for Culture with a capital C has never been astounding; always very low priority and it is indeed surprising that cultural life in Malta is as comparatively rich as it is. Therefore I cannot but admire a chamber ensemble like Promuzika for their initiative and hope that other ensembles will emulate this example in future.

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