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The Three Palaces – Looking Back on an Online Festival

The Three Palaces festival has been a feature in Malta’s cultural calendar for several years now. The format invites audiences into some of the nation’s most magnificent buildings for an up-close experience of the arts. The 2020 edition recently wrapped up during the COVID-19 global pandemic that has seen almost the entire world locked behind doors and the transition of live performances into a virtual space experienced on-screen. Now at the close of the festival, I spoke to the festival Artistic Director Dr. Michelle Castelletti and festival critic Romana Depares 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 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. Starting out with the idea to extend The Three Palaces concept into the world of couture with a fashion show, the shift to an online format resulted in a film that is a synthesis of architecture, art, music and dance and an embodiment of interdisciplinarity.

Heiligenstadt…Another World Inside was another multi-disciplinary meeting of minds 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.

There was also The L’Isle Adam Choir Books, a documentary on the most significant 16th century musical and liturgical collection housed at 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 of 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 .

One advantage of a virtual festival is that all performances are now available online, creating a legacy that can reach audiences worldwide. “Thanks to high production values and technology, I was actually transported to these places,” said festival critic Ramona Depares, “and I do believe that this enabled a wider reach to some audiences that maybe wouldn’t usually have found the events accessible.”

I asked Depares about the shift to online festivals necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic and how she feels this was experienced by The Three Palaces Festival audience this year. “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. While the world looks for a way out of the current malaise of social distancing and lockdowns, Festivals Malta asked 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.”


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