Malta is a small island nation in the Mediterranean, population under half a million. Yet the island of Malta and its smaller sister isle of Gozo bear more than their fair share of world history. Remarkably, too, over the past decade and more the tiny country has grown a world-class orchestra. I didn’t know about the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) until recently – and I’ve been to Malta. Gratifyingly, the MPO is taking another step this week toward international recognition with its first U.S. tour.
The first of three East Coast concerts took place at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia on Tuesday night. The program was conducted by Armenian maestro Sergey Smbatyan and featured pianist Ingolf Wunder. It included works by the late Maltese composer Joseph Vella; Maltese-American contemporary composer Alexey Shor; and Dmitri Shostakovich. (See my recent interviews with Smbatyan and Shor.) The tour continues at The Music Center at Strathmore near Washington D.C. on 29 November and Carnegie Hall in New York City on 1 December.
The MPO’s roots lie in Malta’s century-and-a-half as a British colony. (Visitors will note that in Malta you drive on the left, a sure sign that the Union Jack flew overhead at one time.) Malta gained independence in 1964. The British Mediterranean Fleet was disbanded three years later. The fleet’s Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) had maintained a chamber ensemble, the C-in-C Orchestra. In 1968, some of the musicians who’d been cut loose from that group formed the Manoel Theatre Orchestra, which in 2008 evolved into today’s MPO.
My own introduction to Malta came via the Brits as well. A few years ago I happened to see on Turner Classic Movies a 1953 film called Malta Story. It stars Alec Guinness as a photographer-pilot for the RAF who winds up on Malta during World War II and has a romance with a local. The film has powerful footage of the rubble the residents lived and hid among during the war as the Axis powers persistently bombed the strategically important island. But it also shows neolithic ruins, which captivated this classic-film buff and turned my chance encounter with TCM into a trip to Malta, via Sicily.
Busy visiting historic sites, we didn’t experience the Maltese music scene, though we did gape at the opera house, bombed half to ruin and kept that way as a monument. I remained ignorant of Maltese music until I learned of the imminent and first-ever arrival of the MPO on American shores.
Like that roofless opera house in Malta’s capital city of Valletta, Joseph Vella’s tone poem “Rebbieħa” recalls the nation’s many casualties of war. Malta’s history is too involved and dramatic to summarize here. It endured a great Ottoman siege in the 16th century. Its importance to the Allied effort during World War II is too easily forgotten by the outside world. Its creative artists deserve to be better known too.
The much-esteemed Vella, who died earlier this year, was one of the country’s cultural leaders for decades. He led the Astra Opera Theatre in Gozo for nearly half a century. He was at one time the director of the MPO in its previous iteration. He would surely have been delighted that the orchestra’s first U.S. concerts are opening with his single-movement “Rebbieħa,” whose name means “Victorious.” (Maltese is a Semitic language, the only one in Europe, and the only one written in the Roman alphabet.)
Smbatyan drew much feeling from the orchestra, especially in the funeral march section, which displayed fine musicianship all around. It put me in mind of Gustav Holst’s dramatic The Planets as it built to a massive battlefront, funereal and at the same time suggestive of war and the wreckage it leaves behind.
Austrian pianist Ingolf Wunder drew much applause in Alexey Shor’s winning neoclassical Travel Notebook suite for piano and orchestra. Immediately Wunder established an excitable yet assured sensibility in the opening movement, which felt warm-blooded despite its serpentine melodies. The audience broke custom by cheering Wunder’s virtuosic playing in the Barcelona-inspired “La Rambla” movement, where good-natured romance explodes into a powerful pianistic workout.
The songlike “Addio” developed a sinewy intensity that put me in mind of Rachmaninoff. The gently pastoral “Luxembourg Garden” made a nice contrast. After a solemn start the Ravenna-inspired “Rubicon” churned into high gear with Chopin-esque piano runs. After the piece entitled “Sorrow” died subtly away, the galloping “Horseman” closed out the suite with a memorable main theme taken up by the violins and horns in an exciting climax.
Smbatyan deserves credit for the nice balance the musicians maintained between orchestra and piano in the Shor. Balance is also critical to the program’s biggest work, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. Smbatyan has led a number of symphonies by the composer and clearly devoted much thought to interpretation. The music is apparently in his bones too – he conducted this substantial work without a score.
The strings-only opening segment of the first movement was full of angsty mystery. When the woodwinds entered it felt as if a whole new dimension had opened in the world. Slight imprecisions in attack appeared occasionally, but these faded in light of the fine playing during the many exposed passages. And the orchestra played as if truly speaking with one voice through the nervous throb of the development. It was a real thrill to hear.
Jollity with depth characterized the “Allegro” second movement, a scherzo in all but name. Carnival, racetrack, haunted house – all the wonder came through. But if anywhere, it was in the deep third movement with its organ-like textures that Smbatyan’s deep feel for this composer came through most impressively. My memory is large, but my notes are few; it was one of those times when as an audience member one is figuratively holding one’s breath. The closing major chord felt like a mythic moment.
The ensemble poured its all into the muscular finale, beautifully handling tension and release. The hall’s bright sound drove the violin volume a bit off the scale in the louder sequences. I suspect that won’t happen at Carnegie Hall, where the MPO is off to after Thursday’s concert at Strathmore.
The Philadelphia concert augured well for the MPO’s further travels beyond the concert halls of what George W. Bush memorably disparaged as “old Europe.” Malta indeed has a long and storied history, but the Malta Philharmonic is making some history of its own.