Opening of the Manoel Season: Everybody was there
The opening concert at the Manoel is anticipated by those of us who are not fans of summer and are music lovers and therefore the concert is a sign that winter is nigh (Allelullia!) and that some great concerts lie ahead.
was there on Friday, 30th September and the temperature inside the theatre was bearable this year. I did not use my fan once! The audience was largely made up of music lovers, but there were also those who will not set foot in the Manoel again until the next opening concert next October. This is such a pity as the theatre needs continuous support.
This year the Manoel Theatre team led by Dr Michael Grech and Ray Attard had the area round the theatre cordoned off and a red carpet laid out, giving the area a festive air. Bubbly and canapés were served by a couple of smart waiters. This was a chance to admire the newly restored façade.
Together with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Brian Schembri, pianist Charlene Farrugia played with her usual ease and sensitivity Beethovan’s Piano Concerto No.4 in G Major. Before the grand piano was whisked away she gave us the pleasure of Schubert’s Moment Musicaux in F minor. She told me afterwards: “What attracted me most to this particular Beethovan concerto is the discovery of the intimate side of the music of this wonderful composer. In the first movement (Allegro moderato), Beethoven slams the ‘heroic’ themes we are so accustomed to hearing in his works, in fact the timpani is not used at all. Instead, he creates a less peremptory theme, giving space to moments of lingering and intimacy. The relationship between the piano and orchestra is also revolutionized. The piano on its own exposes the first theme, almost as a prelude. The second movement, Andante con moto, instead of being an emblematic central movement, is a head-on collision between two incommunicable worlds: the violence of the orchestra (strings only) and the poetic recollection of the piano with an almost “choral” trend. The almost traumatic tension of this movement then dissolves in the final Vivace, a Rondo of supreme elegance.
What is she going to be doing next? “Performances in Lithuania, Mexico and Russia. But I am a realist: I have to continue studying, practicing and improving,” she tells me with her warm smile.
What does conductor Maestro Brian Schembri, who conducted with remarkable authority, have to say about the evening? “Friday’s concert marked a memorable opening to the Season with talented pianist Charlene Farrugia in Beethoven’s very special
Also very special among his symphonies,
seemed to me a perfect match. In any case, these two masterpieces are among my favourites, so I am delighted that I shared this important evening with Charlene and the orchestra and a full house.” Maestro Schembri went on to say that the orchestra will be performing abroad starting from Beethoven’s at the Basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura in Rome this December, the Bozar in Brussels and the mythical Musikverein in Vienna. “I am happy to witness the MPO becoming one of Malta’s foremost cultural ambassadors. All this, naturally, thanks to the great passion, efforts and dedication of all our artistic and administrative team.”
The Chairman of the Manoel Theatre, Dr Michael Grech and the Executive Chairman of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, Sigmund Mifsud, were at the door of the Manoel to meet members of the audience. Later on I asked Dr Grech about the restoration of the façade which now looks so elegant. In spite of being a very busy man Dr Grech always find the time to be cordial and reply to my endless questions: “Yes, it has finally, moved into its final stage, the ground floor. Admittedly, this is the most complex part of the project, due to the many interventions over the years, and, I anticipate, will protract itself throughout the course of the season. We want to ensure that the works will be entirely complete before 2018, when Valletta will be Europe’s Capital of Culture and have, therefore, decided to continue with the works, in spite of the Theatre being fully operational.” There are very obvious changes. The extreme left side of the building has just been unveiled. The door that had been opened in the early 20th century has now been closed, and the plinth on which the two columns flanking the theatre rested, reinstated. “You really need to take a look at the sheer size of the stones to appreciate how daunting the whole process has been. We are currently replicating the process on the extreme right hand side, and then will move towards the middle, narrowing the next two doors to their original size, thereby aligning them with the apertures on the first and second floors. Lastly, and most significantly we will move to the main portal and reconstruct the two columns which flanked it (of which we have found the foundations following an exploratory exercise), and on which the first floor balcony once rested – all very exciting but extremely painstaking!” I then asked him about the climatisation project which is so badly needed. “The lack of climate control at the Manoel has been a perennial issue. As a result, for a good four months of the year, the theatre has to remain closed to the public, as the high temperatures inside render it unbearable. This goes on through to October when though slightly cooler, performances also tend to be unpleasant. We feel it makes absolutely no sense to miss out on the summer season, when so many tourists throng the island and we could be putting up more performances that could result in a vaster calendar, increased revenue and an allyear-round season. This is all the more so within the context of Valletta being the European Capital of Culture in 2018 when, surely, Malta will receive an even higher influx of visitors.”
Dr Grech then explained to me how the proposed system which is innovative, non-invasive and very green, is based on water circulation “and efficient in so far as its running costs are concerned. This will would allow us to maintain a constant ‘room’ temperature all the year-round, which renders the ambient comfortable for patrons, but also prevents damage and deterioration to the wooden interior fabric of the Theatre, resulting from fluctuation of internal temperature (a furnace in the summer and ice chest in the winter).” You have to like this enthusiastic and charming young man!
I have a word of praise for the programme notes which are now in the hands of Dr Joseph Camilleri. It is obvious that they are well researched. Apart from the notes on the music and composers there is a Notes and Quotes section and also a Timeline. I learnt for example that while Beethovan was composing his Piano Concerto No 4 in 1804-07, the Napoleonic wars were raging and the philosopher John Stuart Mill was born. As to the Brahms Symphony composed in 1882-1883, Franz Kafka and Coco Chanel were born while Richard Wagner and Karl Marx died.
I have to say that the audience too, was enthusiastic that evening. In Mozart’s day, Viennese audience members would heckle and demand spontaneous encores. This would have appealed to the composer himself, a showman as well as a genius, who loved to be praised. Eventully Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II forbade such a rowdy audience participation at his theatre because it stopped him getting to bed on time: repeated arias and applause could drag a three-hour opera out to five. This, along with composers such as Mendelssohn writing their music to be played without pause between movements, led to the status quo today.
Clapping between movements and throwing your Agent Provocateur panties at the handsome tenor is only tolerated on the last night of the Proms. On the whole the Manoel Theatre audience is quite a restrained one.
Pianist Charlene Farrugia playing Beethovan’s Concerto No 4 in G major and Maestro Brian Schembri conducting our Philharmonic Orchestra at the Opening concert, Manoel Theatre, 30 September