Malta Philharmonic makes an impressive showing in mixed program

Sun Dec 02, 2018 at 11:48 am
Sergey Smbatyan conducted the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall Saturday night.

Sergey Smbatyan conducted the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall Saturday night.

Even in a city like New York, where pretty much anything that exists can be had, at any time of the day or night, there are still chances to experience the rare and unusual. 

Such was the case Saturday night in Carnegie Hall, where the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, with conductor Sergey Smbatyan, made a notable appearance.

The concert was part of a tour in celebration of the orchestra’s 50th anniversary, though its roots date back to the era when the island was still a British colony.

As heard Saturday night, this is an impressive group. They played with polished technique and fine orchestral balances. The string section is smaller than that of most major orchestras, and so their weight is lighter; and while the front-desk soloists were solid, they didn’t have the last measure of musicality one hears from the New York Philharmonic or the other orchestras that appear in Carnegie Hall.

In an evening of mostly satisfying music-making, the only flaw was in the programming itself. Sandwiched inside an enjoyable work by Maltese composer Joseph Vella and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 was Travel Notebook Suite for piano and orchestra, composed by Alexey Shor, and featuring pianist Ingolf Wunder as soloist.

In seven sections, each “inspired” by a trip to a place like Barcelona or Venice, the music collected the most obvious banalities of sentiment and place. The rhythmic and melodic flavors for Barcelona, Rome, et al were all ersatz. Occasionally the music showed a flash of personality, but in the main it was without a distinctive style and anonymous.

Wunder played with steady, stolid rhythms and a monochromatic touch, satisfied with what seemed a straight reading of his part. For those who enjoyed his playing, he hammered out a messy Chopin Polonaise, Op. 53, as an encore.

Travel Notebook was especially disappointing after the shine of the thinking and playing in Vella’s Rebbieha, Op. 45. This was a dramatic overture with energy, imagination and an individual voice. That Vella positions himself somewhere between Ralph Vaughan Williams and Shostakovich enhanced the music’s qualit-—he acknowledged what was important to him and showed what he had to contribute. Rebbieha was also a chance for the orchestra and Smbatyan to show their mettle, which was most impressive. 

The Shostakovich symphony provided an even greater demonstration of what the Malta Philharmonic was capable of.

At the start, things didn’t really click; the playing was precise and intelligent, with impressive command of dynamics, but it didn’t feel like Shostakovich was present. There was none of the composer’s special tension, the feeling of a fist clenched tight around an exceedingly fine thread.

But at the point where the tempo increases before the first movement march, the spirit came together, and the energy was not just technical but organic. Except for some intonation problems in the exposed woodwind and cello passages in the Largo, this was a strong and skillful performance.

Smabatyan’s attempt to immediately segue from the Largo to the final movement was thwarted by audience applause, and perhaps that produced the extra amount of fury that opened the Allegro non troppo. This final movement had a superb shape and drive. The final pages are commonly, and naturally, heard as, at best, a Pyrrhic victory. To Smbatyan, they expressed unequivocal triumph, and it’s a credit to the conductor and orchestra that they convinced the listener it could be nothing else.


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