Since the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra appointed Brian Schembri as its artistic director and principle conductor in January 2014, the orchestra has advanced both in maturity and confidence. Schembri’s experience in France and Russia and working with leading international orchestras and conductors has instilled a sense of enthusiasm and energy into the orchestra. This was well illustrated in the final concert of the MPO’s season performed at the, packed, Manoel Theatre in Valletta. The programme featured three major works of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

The opening work was the Hebrides Overture (Fingles Cave) by Felix Mendelssohn. Here the orchestra was in fine form and augured well for the remainder of the concert. With Schembri’s fine control of the contrasting interludes, alternating between calm and storm.

The orchestra was joined by the soprano Gillian Zammit for a memorable performance of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs. All songs but the first one, Frühling, deal with death and were written shortly before Strauss himself died. However, instead of the typical Romantic defiance, these songs are suffused with a sense of calm, acceptance, and completeness. They contain remarkable soaring melodies against a full orchestra, and all four songs have prominent horn parts. The combination of a beautiful vocal line with supportive brass accompaniment references is said to reflect Strauss' own life.

Gillian Zammit’s crystal clear voice evoked the sense and emotions of the text supported by the sympathetic playing of the orchestra, Schembri maintaining a perfect balance between singer and orchestra. The final song of the set (Im Abendrot) included flutes playing a splendid duet, evoking and symbolizing larks flying up toward the heavens at the end of the day, matching Zammit’s soaring melodies. Never overpowered by the orchestra, the performance was Zammit at her best with the audience spellbound. The audience was rewarded with another demonstration  of Zammit’s beautiful clear and controlled voice in Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, performed as an encore.

The enthusiasm and energy instilled in the orchestra by Schembri’s direction was superbly demonstrated in the final work of the evening – Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. From the first opening chords its scale of thought and ambition are unprecedented. From the sensitivity of the funeral march to the explosion of joy in the final bars: the conductor orchestra.

It was obvious from the outset that the new enthusiasm and energy in the orchestra had been instilled with Schembri’s direction, from the sensitive and sympathetic playing of the second movement to the vitality and exhilaration of the finale.

This performance was a fitting climax to the MPO’s first season under Schembri and augers well for the future of the orchestra. In fact this performance was fully booked and it was decided to have an unprecedented repeat on the following evening.