The Malta Independent 17 June 2024, Monday
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The International Spring Orchestra Festival: music needs to be experienced

Tuesday, 28 May 2019, 12:45 Last update: about 6 years ago

Ates Orga. Introduction by Nikki Petroni

The strength of the classics is their timelessness; their ability to make us feel, think, love, in spite of geographical and historical distance. Contemporary dialogue with the classics and the ability to create new work, as well as adapt the established, reflects the versatility, and breadth, of composers and artistic directors. Karl Fiorini achieved this beautiful balance between the past and today in this year's edition of the International Spring Orchestra Festival: a marvellous, demanding repertoire sprinkled with curious, even more rewarding moments.

The International Spring Orchestra Festival, going strong for 13 years, shows no signs of abating. Of Death and Maidens, the 2019 edition (26 April-4 May) took us on a journey of cultural, psychological and personal discovery, from Napoleonic Europe to today, from Malta to the Baltic, Vienna to Crimea. Following recent seasons, the nine-day mix was tried and familiar, with orchestral concerts and recitals juggling established and ascending stars. Typically, a broad artistic cross-section was represented, including soloists and instrumentalists from Malta, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Britain, Croatia, Estonia, France, Hungary, Japan, Israel, Russia, Switzerland and Ukraine. In a post-'Valletta 18' city perceptibly quieter, and emptier, this year than last, the National Museum of Archaeology, Malta Society of Arts and Teatru Manoel were the featured venues.

The focus of the opening concert, given by the Harmonia Consort, was the first performance of Fiorini's complex, rarefied transcription for voice and 13 strings of Schoenberg's pre-First World War Book of the Hanging Gardens, a cycle of 15 brief songs to poems by Stefan George suggestive of "a love affair against a luxuriant background" unfolded through six illusory, ultimately tragic life stations. The world Karl Fiorini taps into shows us Schoenberg as a man not just of rigour and angularity but of tremulous angst and palpable fragility (his wife had left him for his friend the painter Richard Gerstl), the dramatic expression more soft-glow than hard-thrust, the feathers of nostalgia sharing that same end-of-empire regret of which Mahler and Richard Strauss were such defining masters. Fiorini's provocative mind makes for an intellectually penetrating voyage. And for listeners still shy of Schoenberg a century on, an inviting, sonorously palatable one. Clare Ghigo, looking like some muse out of Klimt, delivered a nuanced, theatrical performance, sensitive to the ebb and flow, the drawn tension, of the vocal line. The account wasn't without rhythmic and ensemble discrepancies, but the overall impact, the concentration of words, music and instrumental contribution, was believably fin de siècle Vienna.

Offering a useful chance to compare, three versions of Schubert's Death and the Maiden were programmed. Mahler's iconic 1896 string arrangement. The quartet original in a remarkable evening by the Somogyi String Quartet which also included Schoenberg's First in a spiritually draining masterclass of central European music making at its best. And the poignantly beautiful 1817 song that inspired the second movement in a short but musically honest Liederabend by Joseph Lia and Natalia Rakhmatulina presented without frills or affectation. Death: "Give me your hand ... I am not to be feared ... You will sleep softly in my arms."

Toughest of the Festival's recitals was that of the Aquilon Trio - Eulalie Charland, violin, Max Mausen, ex Malta Philharmonic principal clarinet and Maiko Mori. Not so much Charles Camilleri's New York Trio (marking the 10th anniversary of his death) or the staged "fun" element of Thea Musgrave's Pierrot (complete with commedia dell'arte masks), as the premieres of two new works by French composers familiar from earlier visits to Valletta. Dominique Lièvre's In girum imus nocte ecce et consumimur igni (an International Spring Orchestra Festival commission), "a cautionary tale for ambitious or curious people wanting to get too close to the lights of power, wealth or glory!", proved thoughtful but relatively nebulous. Roland Conil's Hadès et les Nymphes, continuing a Grecian theme in his catalogue, is a tougher, tauter canvas, imaginatively conceived. The Aquilon team responded supportively.


Easiest on the ear was the Trio Ameraldi's traversal of piano trios by early Shostakovich (his lovesick First) and Schubert (the aristocratic Second). Notwithstanding youth and an occasionally soft-centred reticence, this attractively personable ensemble of relaxed charm and chemistry, based in Switzerland, pack experience and discipline into their musical vision. Good to meet them.

Hardest to reconcile was Saida Zulfuragova's sonata Beethoven and childhood Schumann, taking us down rutted roads into foggy woods. Her encore, Fazil Say's inimitable Black Earth, let fly another person, in a place, time and thought of her own, living through so many minutes of autobiography, rapt and wracked in confession, embracing the instrument, damping the strings with an almost child-like caress, plucking the melody like some raven-haired shepherdess, tapping into megalithic resonances stretching from the Mediterranean to the Caucasus to the Caspian.

At the beginning of the Festival soprano Gillian Zammit was groomed and presented. Her choice of songs, arguably, was on the moderated, cool side, but she knows how to deliver a framed performance, classically phrased. She carries and sustains a line. Classy elegance is hers, softly spoken. Together with her accompanist, Malta Philharmonic harpist Britt Arend (a former student in Brussels of the great Susanna Mildonian), she held the audience.

In the presence of the President, the closing concert at the Teatru Manoel, given by the Estonian Sinfonietta under Brian Schembri, addressed three ages of Maltese pianist. Lucia Micallef, tackling Poulenc's tricky Aubade of 1929 (relating the plight of Diana, the virgin "huntress, chaste and fair" of Roman mythology) with determination and bravado, fearless from the opening cadenza. Charlene Farrugia, limpid and effortless in the obbligato part of Hindemith's first Kammermusik (an oblique Bauhaus tribute). And 12-year-old Daphne Delicata from Gozo, in the third of three unfazed warm-up appearances during this year's Festival, playing Ravel's Sonatine with style, aplomb and crystalline touch. An enticing prospect, she goes to England and the Yehudi Menuhin School in September. We wish her well.

Two cycles showcasing French mezzo Brigitte Peyré, an imperious, queenly figure without diva pretentions, brought down the curtain. Karl Fiorini's Four Miniatures, commissioned by the Valletta Cultural Agency and receiving its world premiere, sets words by the French poet and harpsichordist, Sophie Charpentier. According to the composer, this work aims "to capture Valletta, a city of echoing memories, where the scorching Mediterranean sun lashes out implacably at its buildings' pigments and the worn-out, cracked ramparts that contain it; where the night hits the churches' domes before devouring the nostalgic fabric of its cobbled and exhausted streets, caressed and trespassed by travellers, dwellers, peddlers, lovers old and newly-found alike". Predictably, his canvas is rarefied and impeccably chiselled, rich in finely calculated associations. Reminding us of his strengths, Schembri was adept in shaping architecture and dramatising contrasts. His Estonian players, however, following an uneasy "Soloists" concert the night before (curious principally for the original septet version of Richard Strauss's end-of-war Metamorphosen), had to work hard, not without turbulence along the way.

They survived better in Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, a valedictory reading striking for Peyré's journey of womanhood and motherhood, loss and grief, intensely imparted. As festivals go this was no cheerful apotheosis yet one appropriate to Fiorini's Death and Maidens theme - an enduring reminder of high European culture. Schembri, not immediately associated with Mahler, secured some impressive playing, timing the final seconds to lay before us a shroud for all eternity. Turning towards him, darkness descended, Peyré movingly shared the indefinable.

This was a good edition for the International Spring Orchestra Festival, maintaining standards and drawing new listeners. But gripes remain, without sign of resolution. The continuing, surprising absence of students, for instance, despite free admission. Video-sharing websites, audio-streaming platforms and "live" relays, good and helpful though they are, are no substitute for the balances and perspectives of the real thing. The chemistry of the moment, the interaction of players, music as a living force, needs to be experienced in person. Piano maintenance remains indifferent to poor. The relatively new small Steinway at the Malta Society of Arts does not hold its tuning well. And, as Alex Stukalenko of the Trio Ameraldi demonstrated clearly, to our disquiet, the younger of the Teatru Manoel's two Steinway concert-grands is in questionable condition, its upper registers prone to skeletonic clattering, the mid- and lower-range more edgy than full. Passed its youth, it needs a radical Hamburg overhaul or replacement. Eighty-eight keys and plush bodywork isn't sufficient. Distinguished artists expect, if not demand, distinguished instruments.

Next year's International Spring Orchestra Festival, From Mortal to Immortal, runs from 17 to 25 April.


Concert Photos: Joe Smith

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