Big event, small audience

Malta Philharmonic Orchestra Valletta 2018 Tour

3 minute read
Conductor Sergey Smbatyan led the Malta Philharmonic in an ambitious program. (Photo by Joe Smith.)
Conductor Sergey Smbatyan led the Malta Philharmonic in an ambitious program. (Photo by Joe Smith.)

The opportunity to hear an orchestra other than one’s own, especially from another country whose musical culture is little-known to you, is always exciting. Tuesday night, the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, the only professional orchestra in that country, chose Philadelphia to perform its first-ever concert in the United States.

Meeting Malta

The concert featured music by Maltese composer Joseph Vella, along with a new work for piano and orchestra by Alexey Shor and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor.

Going in, I knew little of Maltese music. Vella’s Rebbieħa features vivid, dramatic melodies that could invite comparisons to such disparate composers as Sibelius and John Williams.

Shor’s Travel Notebook for Piano and Orchestra makes me think of the Saint-Saëns piano concertos; the piece was harmonically conservative and sometimes a touch predictable, but with some truly gorgeous melodies and virtuosic piano lines performed powerfully by Ingolf Wunder. The piece featured an effective neoclassical blending of “high” and “low” styles, from “fugal” learned style to folk-music styles.

In the second half of the program, the Shostakovich began with a rendition of its first movement that was comparatively light and crisp but a bit less lush than that to which Philadelphians might be accustomed. But the last movement of the piece was appropriately rousing and spirited.

Marketing missteps

Verizon Hall is substantially larger than the 1,400-seat Republic Hall where the orchestra performs in Valletta, and I sensed the musicians may not have been entirely comfortable in this space. While we in Philadelphia are spoiled by our commanding violin section, Malta Philharmonic’s violins occasionally seemed timid and neither delicate nor intense enough for the music’s requirements.

On the other hand, the musicians’ European-style seating arrangement was highly effective in the back-and-forth sections between first and second violins. The winds were generally strong.

The Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, which will perform in the Washington area and in New York City later this week, rented Verizon Hall, but the Kimmel Center was not involved in its marketing. Unfortunately, that marketing effort — by New York’s 8VA Music Consultancy — was not especially successful.

Pianist Ingolf Wunder performed the Shor with virtuosic power. (Photo by Joe Smith.)
Pianist Ingolf Wunder performed the Shor with virtuosic power. (Photo by Joe Smith.)

Despite mass emails sent the day before the event offering free tickets to students, faculty, staff, and even unaffiliated friends at the University of the Arts, the college of music at Temple University, and presumably other schools, Verizon Hall was less than a quarter full.

Although the company merely rented the Kimmel Center space, one wonders whether the Kimmel could have offered some guidance to help with outreach for these first-timers, or if this was the foregone result of a somewhat obscure orchestra with a somewhat obscure — but really exciting — program on a Tuesday night. It’s a shame, because an excellent concert like this deserves to happen more often, but based on Tuesday’s audience size it’s unlikely it will.

Cultural competency

The company's program notes were much fun, in spite of grammatical errors; they possessed a directness and willingness to take enthusiastic, opinionated stances in a way that contrasts with the generality of American program notes. Of the Shostakovich fourth movement, they write simply, “It is ‘life itself as it is.’” The notes also describe the second movement as “complex ternary form” with no further explanation, which makes me wonder if music theory is taught more universally in Maltese schools.

The programs were printed in full color on large, thick, glossy paper with no advertisements except for an upcoming international Maltese piano competition. Perhaps most striking, the program held a personal note from the president of Malta herself.

She expressed some general opinions — “the gift of music can bring diverse communities and cultures together” — but also showed a detailed interest in the specific musical repertoire: “I am glad you have chosen to share [Vella’s] acclaimed masterwork, entitled Rebbieħa, which tells the story of the impressive resilience of the people of the Maltese Islands.” Living in the United States at this moment, I was moved by such a note from a head of state.

What, When, Where

Malta Philharmonic Orchestra Valletta 2018 Tour. Sergey Smbatyan, conductor; Ingolf Wunder, piano. Rebbieħa, Symphonic Poem, Op.45, by Joseph Vella; Travel Notebook for Piano and Orchestra, by Alexey Shor; Symphony No. 5 in D minor, by Dmitri Shostakovich. November 27, 2018, at the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall, 300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or

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