World Class Composer – Memorial Speech by Dr. Jennifer Margaret Barker

Joseph Vella was a world-class composer. His unique compositional language, coupled with his superb compositional craft, enabled him to create an opus of works that will stand the test of time and remain an integral part of the international concert stage.
I was first introduced to Joseph Vella in the Fall of 2014, by my good friend, Geoffrey Haydock. Little did I know at that time how profound that new friendship would become. Not only was Maestro Vella a superb composer, conductor and musician…but more importantly, he had a heart of gold. He was humble and full of grace, and the depth of his humanity was immeasurable.

In attending the 2015 Victoria International Arts Festival, I was immediately struck by the passion and commitment exhibited. Each and every person with whom I interacted understood the impact that music can have on bringing communities together: transcending boundaries and differences through a shared, universal language; a language that, more than the spoken word, provides humanity with a highly effective emotional, psychological and educational tool.

The source of this understanding was also immediately evident: the festival’s vision and mission was not only spoken by Maestro Vella but also lived by Maestro Vella. In many ways, Maestro Vella’s catalogue of compositions speaks to this vision more than any words: works for the international classical concert stage sitting alongside works for local community ensembles and works for the church. In other words: music for people from all walks of life.

Having met Maestro Vella, I was very keen to bring him to the University of Delaware. I knew that my students would learn a lot from him on many different levels. I wanted my students to be able to hear his compositional voice, witness his professionalism, and learn of the Maltese culture and history. His week-long residency in the Spring of 2016 at the University of Delaware was a tremendous success. He worked individually with students on their current composition projects, and worked with faculty in rehearsals of his music. He was interviewed, on stage, on his compositional style and influences as part of a New Music Delaware chamber music concert of his works performed by University of Delaware faculty, and he attended the premiere of his new Concerto Grosso (op. 143) for Harp, Harpsichord and Piano soli with orchestra, performed by the University of Delaware Symphony Orchestra and faculty soloists.

The fact that Maestro Vella asked a professional orchestra to hold their first performance of this concerto until after the University of Delaware Symphony Orchestra premiere, shows his deep consideration for and support of young musicians, as well as his unending kindness. A student premiere of his work was just as important to him as a professional premiere. He had promised the students the premiere of this work, and he stood by his promise. He understood the necessity for young musicians to be an integral part of the life and history of new music.

Upon hearing of his passing, my husband and I decided to create an award for a University of Delaware composition student in Maestro Vella’s honour and name. The first recipient of this award was Christian Johnson, who, in September 2018 moved on to graduate studies at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. For us, Christian was the perfect choice as the first recipient of this award. In addition to writing for the concert stage, Christian had been heavily involved in writing and performing music within the church during his undergraduate studies. Christian chose to attend West Chester University rather than other universities because the scholarship that West Chester offered him included residency in a home for the elderly as the Director of Music.

Therefore, this live-in position allows Christian to bring music to the lives of elderly community members while working towards his Masters degree in composition. In my opinion, Christian’s work as a young composer parallels similar life and artistic choices made by Maestro Vella. My husband and I intend on continuing this annual award at the University of Delaware while I am a professor at that university. However, it is also our greatest wish that this award evolves in an international award for young composers around the world.

I am forever grateful that the students and faculty at the University of Delaware were able to meet Maestro Vella and perform his music. I am also grateful that many of my musician friends around the world knew his warm friendship and never-ending support for their music-making. His joyful and loving support of composers and musicians, young and old, resonated not only with me but with many others. His legacy will live on through his music and those who had the great honour of knowing him.


Scottish composer, Dr. Jennifer Margaret Barker, is Professor of Music Composition and Theory at the University of Delaware, Co-Chair of the New Music Delaware concert series, and Director of Still Breathing: The University of Delaware Contemporary Music Ensemble. She has taught at universities in the United States of America since 1994, returning home to Scotland each year when the university semesters are not in session. Her husband, John Palmer, is a professional cameraman/editor and audio engineer from Worcester in England.