The Malta Independent 18 June 2024, Tuesday
View E-Paper

The International Spring Orchestra Festival: Getting grass to grow in a rocky landscape

Wednesday, 2 May 2018, 11:06 Last update: about 7 years ago

Ates Orga. Introduction by Nikki Petroni

Hesitant though I am to begin on a negative note, especially to introduce a perspective about an event that channels one of the most compelling forms of beauty, I cannot but address a recurrent issue that resonates in our contemporary moment. Often discussed between myself and my doctoral supervisor, Dr Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, is the non-participation of community and cognoscenti in spectacular happenings. Educators and students alike are little more than an intermittent presence, if at all. So how are we to grow as a nation? How are we to compete with major cultural institutions if the very grass we tread on is scattered, untouched, alienated from itself? This lethargy creates a vicious cycle of lost knowledge, memories facing oblivion in the ever-moving spiral of non-collective history.


Ateş Orga's insightful, intimate review of the recent ISO Festival honours the passion that goes into making this occasion a success year after year. Let his words serve as a reminder of the individuals, near and far, who together labour to build a legacy that transcends all troubles and adversity.

* * *

Given the imagination of its restless Paris-based artistic director, Karl Fiorini, the twelfth edition of the International Spring Orchestra Festival in Valletta (6-14 April) - Revolution and its Composers - has predictably been about risks, discernment and platinum class.

Highlight of the opening evening (Teatru Manoel) was the Maltese premiere of Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony, with the European Union Chamber Orchestra under Brian Schembri, a conductor whose artistry they reciprocate. Darkness, the pain of melody, the blackness of sentiments and speech-rhythms that can never be turned back, of life silenced, of Death as reaper rather than angel, make for a canvas that in its starkness still sends shockwaves. Schembri understands the genesis, blood and syntax of this music like few, his soloists - Larissa Pominova from the St Petersburg Chamber Opera and Yuri Vlasov from the Mariinsky - delivering their words with a believability and intensity that sent shivers. Come the final blow - Death seizing us in the midst of merriment - the theatre went black, the lights of life extinguished. Not a new idea, but one rarely executed to such numbing effect.

The veteran Basque-Spanish pianist Joaquín Achúcarro - a poet of the instrument, drawing on a lifetime of encounters and experiences to give us perfumed, tinted cameos from another age - brings to the platform something of the weight and charisma of the trans-Atlantic heroes of the past. Offsetting Chopin's Gallic Préludes with pearls and dreams memorialising the centenary of Debussy's death, his recital - lyrical more than leonine, never a crude moment, curtained in warmth - played to all his strengths.

Three soirées de chambre focussed on late Bartók. In the remarkable hands of the Somogyi String Quartet from Budapest, the Second and Sixth Quartets were outstanding (National Museum of Archaeology). How often does one hear their difficulties and extended techniques dispatched so silkily, every phrase and nuance, every accent and rest, placed with an innate understanding of structural function and dramatic tension? In the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion Roland Conil and Véronique Muzy had the measure of the music, intellectually and technically, savouring its visceral panorama. Written for Benny Goodman and Joseph Szigeti in 1938, Contrasts found the Aquilon Trio impressive in many ways if not quite firing on all cylinders. Their Khachaturian Trio and Fiorini's 'new creative direction' Lamina from 2002 compelled more.

The Festival annually spotlights a Rising Stars corner. This year's newcomers featured Jean-Marc Fabri, Francis James Camilleri, Daphne Delicata and Daniel Zak Borg (Malta Society of Arts). Despite the occasional misguided choice - attempting repertory that's too hard or playing too quickly has never been a virtue - all had something to say. But it was eleven-year-old Daphne, blessed with immaculate pianism and beautiful presence, who was the outright 'natural'. The first and last of Chopin's Opus 25 Studies were breathtaking - a poetically exquisite A-flat, singing and feathered, and an epic C-minor, her 'tenor thumbs' gloriously ringing out carillons of melody, a Niagara of cascading harmonies to left and right. One to watch.

Across nine days audiences faced an escalation of chain-breaking challenges. Dominique Lièvre's l'Ombre bleu, journeying between states of consciousness, alludes to Egyptian Pyramid Texts from Saqqara, its astral world floating between fragments of timbre, attack and registers, shards of rhythm and sonority blurring into a succession of sensations. Rhythmic and physical, emphasising bold rather than muted piano/percussion tones, Conil's Moïrai conjures the three Fates of Greek mythology - deliverers of good and evil singing of the things that were, the things which are, the things that will be. Based in London, Dimitri Scarlato is an Italian composer, sound-designer, conductor, arranger and keyboardist. More atmosphere-sonnet than tone-poem, In Limbo was inspired by stories of European citizens in the UK following the June 2016 Brexit vote. People murmur, crowds rabble. Anger hums into a mounting drone, walls of microtonal sound rise to confine and batter us, stabbing chords silence exchange. Conducting the well-attended final concert, including Lutosławski's Musique funèbre and Bartók's Divertimento, Scarlato got the best out of his young players - happy to party till late but once on stage resolutely committed.

Pentimenti for strings and percussion, commissioned by the Valletta 2018 Foundation, and Weinende Frau are new works from Fiorini looking to painting for their stimulis. Pentimenti to pentimento, that Van Eyck/Caravaggio technique by which a canvas is altered or over-painted; Weinende Frau to Picasso's The Weeping Woman, based on one of the figures, a crying mother holding her dead child, in his anti-war mural Guernica. If either has an extra-musical scenario none is revealed. But, Schumann/Shostakovich-like, ciphers, cryptograms, subtexts and motivic interleavings are for the seeking. And both share a common paring-down of musical language. Schembri structured a lucid account of Pentimenti, accenting its 'repent'/'regret' paragraphs. Under Scarlato Weinende Frau - an 'introduction-and-allegro' configuration - impressed as a wirily mapped addition to the modern string library (United Music Publishing).

Commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Central Bank of Malta (Teatru Manoel, 15th April), adjunct to the Festival, In girum imus nocte ecce et consumimur igni (We wander the night, behold, and when we approach the fire we are consumed by it) is described as 'an ominous warning to the ambitious who crave to get too close to the lights of power, wealth or glory'. A boldly courageous commission, economically but fancifully scored (at times shudderingly evoking Loki flames from colder Sibelian shores), the piece falls into three sections, the outer collonades linked cyclically, the central Lento, in typically 'fine pen' Fiorini style, concerned with arthropodal stranding and lissom catharsis. What a winning London Proms opener it would make. Neither the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra (a paleness of its former self) nor Michalis Economou (a lackadaisical conductor, still more so in rehearsal) rose to the bait.

One of the ISOF's outreach initiatives is free admission to concerts for students from the University Music Department and Malta School of Music. How many bothered? 'It's disheartening,' says Fiorini, 'and to a certain extent alarming, to observe their absence - youngsters, after all, who are aspiring to be the next generation of musicians'. An old battle-cry. A decade ago, in no mood to mince words, he was complaining that the islands' 'musical educators do not encourage their students to expose themselves to what's new and good "out there"'. Wrestling for change, questioning perceptions and values, rejecting complacency, going out on a limb, getting grass to grow in a rocky landscape, has always been Karl Fiorini's grail. He's not going to stop now.

Of death and maidens, next year's International Spring Orchestra Festival, runs from 26 April to 4 May 2019. 

  • don't miss