Festivals Malta: Opening the Palace Doors...Virtually

The Three Palaces Festival invites audiences into some of Malta’s most magnificent buildings for an up-close experience of the arts. It is a niche festival that is part of an annual calendar of events organized by Festivals Malta, the Maltese agency for the festival sector, that showcases Malta’s vibrant national culture and the high calibre of talent that calls Malta home. Other events in the Festivals Malta calendar include such highlights as the Malta Jazz Festival, the Malta International Arts Festival and Notte Bianca.

Chamber Music at the Palace

Chamber Music at the Palace Photo: © Festivals Malta

The 2020 edition of the Three Palaces Festival recently wrapped up during the COVID-19 pandemic that has seen most of the world locked behind doors and the transition of live performances into a virtual space experienced on-screen. At the close of the festival, we spoke to the festival Artistic Director Dr. Michelle Castelletti to understand how the shift to an online format transformed the festival for which the experience of intimate artistic performances matched with architectural heritage is of foremost importance.

“A very important aspect for me was to match the space with experience – and vice-versa,” explained Dr. Castelletti. “The architectural setting was fundamental in every decision made.  Malta boasts an exceptional legacy with its heritage.  This, to me, is at the core of what The Three Palaces Festival exists for.”

With our new social distancing norms and the audience unable to attend the venues in person, the challenge for the Artistic Director was to bring the venues to the screen, presenting new possibilities for collaboration. “I was able to delve into – and explore – aspects of curation that excite me. I was lucky to be able to create a kind of mini-curatorial teams for each project, together with different artists, across all genres and media, as well as academics – and this is where the most stimulating discussion took place,” explained Dr. Castelletti. “I wanted us to be bold, make a statement, take people with us on this marvellous adventure, and create magic”.

The creative teams rose to the occasion admirably...

Not simply an impediment, the remote audience allowed for the artistic exploration of novel spaces that would not otherwise be possible in a physical festival. “This year we explored and indulged in a virtual world, finding and creating our own unique, decadent palaces … be they the palaces inside our minds or the grandeur of a cathedral, the world citadel for jazz, or the surreal world of goddesses,” said Dr. Castelletti.  


Out of the Cage

Out of the Cage. Credit: Festivals Malta. 


The festival opened with the premiere Transformations and Translations, directed by Maltese couturier Luke Azzopardi and filmed at the Auberge de Provence, now the Museum of Archaeology. The original, pre-COVID plan was to expand the scope of the festival into the world of couture with a fashion show inspired by the palace’s grotesque wall paintings and high beamed ceilings. The shift online resulted in a film that is a synthesis of architecture, art, music and dance and an embodiment of interdisciplinarity. “I matched the soundscape, textile and material with movement, replicating contours and transforming deities,” reflected Dr. Castelletti.

Heiligenstadt…Another World Inside was another multi-disciplinary production that premiered during the festival. Filmed at the Valletta Campus Theatre and inspired by Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament, together with the ghost of his raging Grosse Fuge, it reinterprets the spatial aspect of the festival by exploring “the multitudes of internal sounds, blank silences, distant noise, and the essence of isolation”.

Dr. Castelletti continues with a list of other world premieres, her enthusiasm for the content demonstrating how proud she is of the team who brought The Three Palaces Festival online. From The Forgotten Fragments of a Symphony of Horror, a nod to German Expressionist film that was programed to coincide with Friday the 13th, to the phenomenal film direction and terrific playing of Out of the Cage, which moved across a plethora of soundworlds. 


Forgotten Fragments of a Symphony of Horror

Forgotten Framgements of a Symphony of Horror. Credit: Festivals Malta.


There was also The L’Isle Adam Choir Books, which gave an exclusive view of the most significant 16th century musical and liturgical collection housed in the grandeur of St John’s Co-Cathedral, and the harmonies of the ORA Singers coalescing in space in Re-Imaginings.  The festival also featured Powerplant, with the sometimes throbbing, sometimes otherworldly audio-visual performance of British percussionist Joby Burgess. The sensitive, playful, chamber music with Chamber Music at the Palace featured trios by Shostakovich and Bruch in Malta’s San Anton Palace almost gave reassurance during difficult times.

Rounding out the festival lineup was the boldness and majesty of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra’s rendition of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, celebrating the composer’s 250th birthday, and the festival finale with Ronnie Scott’s All Stars Giants of Jazz

The challenge of an online festival is to not just make do with filming live events, but to use the medium to create something new and unexpected – to take a bad situation and create an experience that is in some respects more than a live performance. Although some of the intimacy may be lost, the digital platform breaks geographic boundaries and opens the festival concept to new curatorial approaches and a whole new potential audience viewing from the comfort of their homes. All performances are now available online, creating a legacy that can reach audiences worldwide.


ORA Singers

ORA Singers. Credit: Festivals Malta


To get an understanding of how the shift to an online festival this year was experience by local audiences, we spoke to the Maltese culture critic and Three Palaces Festival reviewer Ramona Depares. “Of course,” she reflected, “nothing will ever compare to being seated in close proximity to the artists, taking in the gorgeous surroundings of the locations. However, I have to admit that, while I expected the festival to be reduced in impact due to its online nature, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The creative teams rose to the occasion admirably and I dare say that we were afforded access to locations that maybe otherwise would not have been possible, including away from these shores.”

The Three Palaces Festival brought Malta’s architectural heritage into our living rooms with beautiful and quality productions, but also reminded us of the spaces that could serve as stages for the arts that for now have been emptied. The importance of intimate live performances bestowed by niche cultural festivals like The Three Palaces Festival cannot be ignored. While the world looks for a way out of the current malaise of social distancing and lockdowns, I asked Depares if anything has been learned by the experience:  

“Now that we have discovered the advantages and attractions of online performances, I am very excited to discover whether next year this trend will continue”, she replied. “Of course, I look forward to the live events themselves, but I also wonder whether we will be lucky enough to enjoy a hybrid of both. I know that many who find themselves unable to attend physically would be overjoyed.”


Article kindly provided by Festivals Malta

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