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Singing to save the Spire and skyline: An interview with Dr. Roger Vella Bonavia.

St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral Valletta together with the University of Western Australia Choral Society, Malta Philharmonic Orchestra and Goldberg Ensemble are proud to present a fund raising concert featuring Handel’s most loved and popular work, The Messiah, which will be performed under the direction of Michael Laus. Members from the University of Western Australia Choral Society led by Dr. Roger Vella Bonavita are travelling around the world especially to support the performance.

The Messiah will be held on Friday evening January 12, 2018 at St Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral in Valletta starting at 19:00 hrs. All proceeds will go towards the restoration of the St Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral. Both Prince Charles and Cameron Makintosh have each donated over €100,000 and the Laing Family Trusts have been generous contributors as well as Lady Marks from the Marks & Spencer family, amongst others. Local entrepreneur Tony Guillaumier covered the costs of an EU funding application that has resulted in an award of about €1.2 million. In all, the Appeal require to raise €3 million to save the St. Paul’s spire, a definitive building on Valletta’s skyline.

Co-Chairman for St Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral Appeal Sir Martin Laing says the concert will raise both awareness and much-needed funds while setting the tone for the Baroque Festival and European City of Culture which launches officially on January 20, he said: “Save Valletta’s Skyline has made progress since we launched back in February, but we still have a long way to go to reach our target. This concert through our Co-Chair Martin Scicluna’s hard work will kick-start another busy year of fund-raising.”

Handel’s Messiah has been described as “one of man’s grandest musical achievements”. It is traditionally performed worldwide either during the Christmas or Easter period, with its Hallelujah Chorus being one of the more recognisable passages. Other notable performers include soprano and mezzo-sopranos Gillian Zammit and Claire Massa, tenor Edward Camilleri and bass tenor Albert Buttigieg; for a special performance of Handel’s famous oratorio, a reflection on Jesus as the saviour of humankind.

The Phoenicia caught up with Dr. Vella Bonavia to find out more about why the University of Western Australia Choral Society are supporting a fund raising concert in Malta. Roger says, “Martin and Lorie Scicluna always come to the Christmas concert of the University of Western Australia Choral Society (UWACS) when they visit Perth. I have sung with this choir for the last thirty years or so. I met the Sciclunas after last year’s concert marking UWACS’s 85th anniversary in the University’s magnificent Winthrop Hall and Martin told me (over a glass of bubbly) that he had been appointed Co-Chairman of the Restoration Committee of St Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral in Valletta.

As he described the massive task facing the committee, I ventured to suggest that a performance of Messiah in the Pro-Cathedral could be a good publicity and fund raising activity. An, admittedly tenuous, link between the Pro- Cathedral and Handel’s great masterpiece arguably justifies the initiative: for the organ now at St Paul’s was originally built for Chester Cathedral in England. It was there when Handel stayed in the city and rehearsed the choir for Messiah’s first performance in Dublin.

Martin said he would take up the idea with the committee and, thus encouraged, I observed that, given the opportunity, a number of choristers from UWACS would almost certainly make the long journey to Malta at their own expense to participate in the performance. In recent years groups of UWACS choristers have sung with choirs in the USA, England, Italy, Russia, Austria and all over Australia. The point was that our participation might help make the event different, interesting and popular.

I confess I thought the proposal would face insurmountable difficulties. But the Restoration Committee was enthusiastic and members of UWACS jumped at the opportunity to sing in Malta. I have to say that we in Perth are most grateful for the support and encouragement given to us by the Committee, Mro Michael Laus, the Hotel Phoenicia, the Strickland family – Lord Strickland was governor of Western Australia for some time – and many others.

Malta holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Australians because during the WW1 Gallipoli campaign she nursed many of our wounded and of course thousands of Maltese migrated to Australia during the nineteenth century.”

Have you performed with Michael Laus previously?
“While I have not (yet) sung with Mro Laus, I know him well by reputation and through recordings. He is a very fine musician. We are all really looking forward to working with him. Malta has a long and very interesting music history. It is wonderful to see how professional and amateur musicians have taken their place at national and international levels and also how music festivals have become a regular part of Malta’s cultural life now.”

Handel’s Messiah has been described as “one of man’s grandest musical achievements”, how does the University of Western Australia Choral Society contribute to that?
“UWACS is by no means the only choir to produce Messiah in Perth. It is extremely popular here – as of course it is all over the world. UWACS’s performed Messiah at its first ever concert in 1931 – with piano accompaniment! Since then the work features regularly in UWACS’s annual programmes and we have sung it to capacity or near capacity houses. UWACS is a very large choir: our last performance of Messiah was on 16th December 2017. There were 150 choristers – a huge sound!”
How difficult is it to sing the famous Hallelujah Chorus?
“It needs to be timed perfectly with very accurate diction, dynamics, phrasing and cut offs. It is wonderful to sing and to see the joy on the faces of the audience – by tradition everyone stands for this most famous of all choruses.”

How long have you been rehearsing?
“The programming for 2017 produced an unusually long rehearsal time of 4 months. Christpher van Tuinen our conductor used the weekly rehearsals to improve our diction, ensemble and so on. Thus all 150 of us sang as one and with great confidence at the performance. This was commented on by many in the audience.”

How many University of Western Australia Choral Society participants will there be in Malta for the 12th January performance?
“There will be nineteen of us divided fairly evenly between sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. There will also be about the same number from Malta’s Goldberg Ensemble and we are much looking forward to singing with them. The combined choir is about as large as can be accommodated in the Pro-Cathedral together with the orchestra and of course the four soloists besides Mro Laus on the podium.”

Since Handel’s famous oratorio is a reflection on Jesus as the saviour of humankind, is it a special occasion to perform it during the festive season?

“Handel intended his ‘Messiah’to be performed at Easter and indeed the work ends with the resurrection of Christ and our salvation. However it is now customary to perform it shortly before Christmas. In fact this is emotionally very successful, for the work can be experienced as mankind’s rejoicing in anticipation of the birth of the saviour and then looking forward to his life, death, resurrection and our redemption.”

The Pro-Cathedral is a significant landmark in Valletta, and a strong contributor to the musical life of the city, how do you think this performance will frame the cultural context for V18?
“Malta celebrates its status as cultural capital of Europe in 2018. Thus this performance of Handel’s Messiah on 12th January launches all the cultural programmes for the year – especially the musical ones. That gives the Messiah organised by the Restoration Committee of St Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral great significance and it also underpins the contribution of all places of worship in Valletta to the cultural life of Malta’s beautiful capital.”

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