Monday 9 July saw the closing concert of this year’s special 15th edition of the Victoria International Arts Festival. A concert featuring the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, together with the resident choir of St George’s Basilica – the Laudate Pueri Choir, soloist Alastair Ross and his group the Cantum Barbum singers of London – all came together to regale the numerous patrons who packed St George’s Basilica for a 90 minute extravaganza of great music.
Joseph Vella, the Festival’s artistic director, took the podium after being introduced by Rev George Joseph Frendo, the Festival’s assistant artistic director. The concert started with a flourish, literally, with Vella’s very new work which was being premiered during the evening. This was Sounds of Celebration op.129. In typical Vella style, the work, although celebratory in texture, is idiosyncratic and speaks in Vella’s own language. There is something very honest about a Vella work which endows it with a permanent validity. Scored for a brass ensemble made up of 4 Horns, 3 Trumpets, 3 Trombones, Tuba, Timpani, and percussion, basically, the work is built around three short motives, each expressing a slightly different mood, yet all in festive fashion. The opening fanfare-like theme sets the pace going and acts as a binding feature in the structure. The second idea, although more lyrical in nature, still expresses a sense of achievement. Both of these then lead to the final theme, all triumphant in its melodic and rhythmic incisiveness. A strongly merited ringing round of applause greeted the final rousing chord.
Next came one of Dvořák’s most endearing and enduring works, namely, his Symphony no. 9 in E Minor, better known ‘From the New World’. A work spanning a good 45 minutes duration, it takes a good interpretation to arrest the attention of the audience. Despite the overbearing heat, one could hear the proverbial pin drop during this particular performance.
The 2/4 Allegro molto has an Adagio preface in 4/8 time. Horns introduce the motto theme, answered by clarinets and bassoons, then strings. Flutes and oboes play a melody in G minor before the ‘Swing Low’ closing subject shifts from minor to G major. Sectional development omits the G minor tune; reprise and coda are distillations. The ravishing Largo begins in D flat major, far from the original E minor. A plaintive English horn melody dominates both here and later on. In between a C sharp minor section marked Un poco più mosso, winds introduce two themes, more palpitating than the D flat section’s big tune, before the motto makes a sinister appearance. Song sections marked Scherzo: Molto vivace, in E minor, pay homage less to Indian pow-wows than to the scherzo movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. A briefer subject in E major recalls the G major closing theme of the first movement, followed by the motto. The Poco sostenuto Trio is pure Czech, beginning in C major, with a G major second theme related to the Beethoven rhythm in sections A and B. Allegro con fuoco is the marking of the final movement with a martial main theme in E minor for horns and trumpets. The clarinet counters with a nostalgic sub-theme, after which flutes and fiddles play a closing subject in G major. The development combines music from previous movements with the main theme of the fourth movement. Following the recapitulation, a Grand Coda ends with a fortissimo restatement of the motto, then a diminuendo to pianissimo on the final chord. This was a performance that was both interesting, exciting and rousing. The Malta Philharmonic Orchestra responded intelligently to Vella’s direction and every nuance of dynamic texture was adhered to. It would have been more than a fitting close to a great concert but more was to come – the best was left for last …
This came in the form of Bernstein’s wonderful, difficult and exhilarating Chichester Psalms. Each of the three movements of the Chichester Psalms features a setting, in Hebrew, of one complete psalm, along with a verse or more of a second. Some of the musical material was taken from an aborted Broadway musical, The Skin of Our Teeth, which was one of the pieces Bernstein worked on during his sabbatical year. The first movement opens dramatically with a chorale-like setting of a portion of Psalm 108 (“Awake, psaltery and harp!”), followed by a lively, almost jazzy, Psalm 100 (“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord”). This opening section uses compelling and difficult intervals of the seventh, and leads directly into a joyful, boisterous, dance-like setting in 7/4 metre.
The second movement begins with a ravishing, lyrical tune, accompanied by just the harp, sung initially by a boy soprano or counter-tenor soloist, for Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”). For this performance, counter-tenor Alastair Ross tackled the very difficult high tessitura of the work with ease, musical intelligence and understanding. This melody is taken up by the voce bianche chorus, but the mood is suddenly interrupted by an aggressive setting of the opening of Psalm 2 (“Why do the nations rage”), when the male chorus intrudes, as it were, in a warlike, bellicose outburst. The lyrical tune eventually appears in counterpoint with this more aggressive music. The violence grows distant, but it continues softly while, above it, the pure voices of the women resume Psalm 23 blissfully unaware of the threat of evil, and Psalm 2 gives way to a peaceful return of soloist. The female section of the Laudate Pueri Choir, so well-known for its inimitably beautiful texture, impeccable intonation and disarming ease with which they tackle the most devilishly difficult works, more than rose to the occasion in this movement. Worthy of mention, too, is the male section of the choir who were entrusted with the very difficult aggressive middle part of the movement. Attacking with panache and conviction, they sailed through their lines without fret or anxiety – the secret of a good performance is always making a difficult piece sound easy – and this was exactly the case. No wonder this work is rarely, if ever, performed in Malta!
A passionate theme for the strings opens the final movement. The mood calms as the chorus intones a peaceful setting of Psalm 131 (“Lord, my heart is not haughty”), a beautiful, warm melody in 10/4 metre, including one variation sung wordlessly. A group of soloists from the chorus (beautifully sung by Maria Frendo, Antoinette Camilleri, Joseph Mercieca and Edmund Saddington) explores this melody further, in preparation for a quiet and haunting setting, a cappella, of the opening of Psalm 133 (“Behold how good, and how pleasant it is”) and a final Amen.
Chichester Psalms has only been performed once in Malta, by the Akkademja Choir and the Laudate Pueri Choir under the direction of Joseph Vella at Sir Temi Zammit Hall, University of Malta, in May 1986.
The concert came to close with a lengthy, resounding applause that greeted the Mro, orchestra, chorus, soloists, and the Victoria International Arts Festival organisers who were called by Joseph Vella and duly acknowledged for their sterling work.
We look forward to the 16th edition, which is already being planned …