When Alexander Vella Gregory became the artistic director of a new cultural programme launched by the Jesuits’ Church Foundation, he had one fundamental aim: to make culture accessible to everyone.
“The right to culture is both a Christian principle, as stated in the Second VatSican Council’s Gaudium et Spes, and a fundamental human right as declared in Article 27 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” explains Vella Gregory. The first season of Music & More at the Jesuits, consisting of recitals, lectures and literary events, was very well received. The second season starts on 19 October and will be held at the Onorati Oratory in Valletta.
The Oratory is part of a complex that includes the Jesuits’ Church, the Old University, and the Oratory of the Immaculate Conception. “Over the years, the oratories were used mostly by the university students, where they would meet and hold discussions. It was a place for community, which is something we strive to revive with this programme,” says Vella Gregory. “Our focus is on local artists and culture. We want this to be another cultural hub where emerging artists perform alongside established ones.”
As a composer, musician, lecturer and researcher, Vella Gregory is well-acquainted with the challenges faced by those in creative professions, which is why he aims to create a space where artists can easily reach their audiences. Part of his strategy is to create an environment where everyone feels welcome and at ease.
“We’re always saying that today’s youth don’t care about culture, but this isn’t necessarily true,” he states. “There are many who are, but they often feel intimidated by the formality of theatre and concerts, and us musicians are sometimes to blame. We dress up in formal attire, and audiences are used to following this dress code too, but I want people to feel free to come as they are, as long as the attire is appropriate for a sacred space. By the same token, if someone needs to leave early or arrive late, they can do so without worrying that they will be judged.”
Vella Gregory also believes in the power of breaking the fourth wall. He noticed that whenever musicians addressed their audience before starting their performance, that direct contact between artist and spectator opened up the way for dialogue. People would hang around afterwards to speak to the musician. The first edition also opened his eyes to the very particular struggles young musicians are facing. He noticed that there is a lost generation of musicians. “Those who were in their late teens during the pandemic, and were therefore on the cusp of starting their performing career, had no opportunity to do so during that crucial time. Sadly, many also don’t feel that they have a future as working musicians, so they are changing career paths,” he continues. “My aim is to give them a safe and welcoming space to perform, where they can experience the thrill of live performance.”
The programme of events, which includes music, literature, public lectures, theatre and visual art, matches the liturgical calendar whenever possible. On 7 December, the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, mezzo soprano Clare Ghigo and pianist Maria Elena Farrugia will perform a concert dedicated to the occasion and, similarly, the feast of St Cecilia, patron saint of musicians, will be celebrated with a special concert dedicated to the saint.
The line-up of events is a treat for anyone even remotely interested in Maltese culture and talent. One of the highlights will be a literary event celebrating the late Oliver Friggieri with the participation of emerging Maltese authors and with original music by Tano Monseigneur. This event will be a collaboration with University of Malta’s Maltese Department and l-Għaqda tal-Malti Università, which are not the only collaborators Vella Gregory has roped in. “We are also collaborating with the Valletta Cultural Agency to have our first exhibition by visual artist Darren Tanti,” he says. “And students from MCAST’s Institute for the Creative Arts will stage their end of year performance at Music & More.”
Reaching out to the Beltin
Reaching out to the Valletta community was very important to the artistic director, which is why a discussion with author Ramona Depares about her book Beltin is another event he is particularly excited about. The book is a collection of anecdotes, both fictitious and autobiographical, from the author’s childhood in the capital city. “I wanted the community of this beautiful city to feel included, and I’m sure this event will be both entertaining and touching for them,” he says.
Including public lectures alongside the performing arts might seem unusual but for Vella Gregory it is just another way of making culture more accessible. “There is so much interesting research being carried out by Maltese researchers, but few have access to it,” he explains. “This is a way to bring a small fraction of that knowledge to the people who might otherwise not be exposed to it.”
The topics covered range from antiquarianism in the 17th century to Eunuchs in Ancient Assyria. “One I am looking forward to is about new technologies which can detect the increasing volume of orbital debris, also known as space junk, and will be delivered by Prof. Kristian Zarb Adami,” he shares. “And another very exciting lecture will be delivered by Dr Theresa Zammit Lupi, whose recent discovery of what is believed to be the world’s oldest book fragment made international headlines.”
The Jesuits’ Church complex has been a cultural hub for centuries and Music & More promises to keep it alive for many more years. This time, however, everyone is invited to be part of the conversation. “Culture transcends boundaries and brings people together. We are all the same in our shared humanity,” concludes Vella Gregory.
‘Music & More at the Jesuits’ is run by The Jesuits’ Church Foundation and will start on 19 October. Events start at 19:30, except for public lectures, which start at 18:30. Entrance is free, but donations are welcome. For more information, visit jesuitschurchfoundation.org.