Brian SchembriBrian Schembri

The highlight of the closing concert of the International Spring Orchestra Festival at the Mediterranean Conference Centre was the world premiere of Karl Fiorini’s de dioses y de perros (of gods and dogs) for soprano, chorus and large orchestra, completed earlier this year.

Living in Paris, Fiorini studied with Charles Camilleri and Joseph Vella, and then in London with Diana Burrell at the Guildhall and Michael Zev Gordon at the Royal College of Music. Befitting his formative years under Camilleri, his early works were broadly Maltese/Mediterranean in identity, but on moving to France he decided to “completely detach himself from this movement”. Witness his two Polish-recorded violin concertos (Divine Art) and the neo-post-Romantic Second Symphony, introduced in Milan last summer (Expo 15).

Fiorini is a composer with big ideas embracing intense emotional states, a man who journeys volcanic storms and wild oceans, who caresses and curses sound and rhythm, who twists and tortures innocent motifs and strands of memory into climaxes and explosions of terrifying confrontation. In the world he creates, one senses the imaginarium he inhabits, loves and dreams but there is rejection and revolution, angst and violence, defeat, doubt and defiance, too. What conquest there is, is hard won.

Claire Debono. Photo: JF MariottiClaire Debono. Photo: JF Mariotti

de dioses y de perros sets poems by the Spanish-Lebanese poet, writer and guitarist Ana Bocanegra Briasco, from a collection published in 2008. A quiet, gracious young woman with eyes that have seen much, her external persona does nothing to prepare us for the chthonian soul-states lying within. “Mother, so much pain I drank in your womb… Each of your words stripped my skin”, “Hopelessness has the colour of sulphur”, “In the beginning it wasn’t the Word but Anguish”, “I write because I have nothing to say”, “There is no form to give to the one who no name has” and “How, God, can one always remember what isn’t? You, for example?”.

Questioning one’s helplessness, sadness, obscurity, fear, revolt and rage, Fiorini’s 17-minute score in seven movements is arresting, shocking, tumultuous, black without a star for comfort. The words are hurled at us. The orchestral rejoinders and interludes are jagged. The landscape is bleak, barren. Dark, eddying pools of pianissimo contrast with monstrous percussion battles and snarling brass, piercing piccolo and concertante piano.

Fiorini’s 17-minute score in seven movements is arresting, shocking and tumultuous

The performance was blindingly relentless. Making a long overdue return to Malta (she is based in Paris), soprano Claire Debono, who originally wanted a “simple piece about despair” but got Niagara instead, was predictably world-class. Unamplified, her voice shattered across the orchestra like iced glass. She reached stratospheric heights with laser accuracy, her wracked body and wrenched hands dramatising the text with all the tragedy of a Greek heroine. Her final “Dios” (“These would be the last words of God”) had to be seen and heard.

Lucia MicallefLucia Micallef

Brian Schembri, with whom she had the ideally tensioned partner to take on Fiorini’s gloves-off challenge, achieved no less with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra and New Choral Singers, pushing boundaries and securing results and a degree of attentiveness and intention that gratified the composer.

It was good to see Charlene Farrugia given the difficult concertante piano part, dispatched with unruffled authority. More than 50 years ago, I remember a Mravinsky/Shostakovich concert in London that had me pinned to the seat, like a bolt through the chest. And so again on this occasion – an exhausting, demanding, glorious affair, no one yielding an inch.

Karl FioriniKarl Fiorini

Beethoven’s 1808 Choral Fantasia, that curious hybrid from just weeks before Napoleon’s second occupation of Vienna, brought the evening to a brilliant “sunshine and jubilation” climax. Open to all manner of interpretations, its trajectory from minor-key introduction to major-key catharsis via adagio and marcia, was in the capable, musical hands of Lucia Micallef – evincing her London school training, never an artist to fuss needlessly, nor waste energy. Schembri, long a favoured sparring partner, collaborated and enhanced with wiry verve and a tight beat. Beethoven always gets the best out of him.

The woodwind and string principals contributed elegantly. And, from the vocal sextet, mezzo Clare Ghigo and tenor Charles Vincenti brought refinement to their roles. The final pages – trumpets and hard-stick drums on the attack, high choral Gs in full cry, the piano ringing out its locked-position chords and rocketing arpeggios – took on an exalted, Bacchanalian dimension. White C major in all its bridal, new century glory.

“Accept then, you beautiful souls, Joyously the gifts of high art. When love and strength are united, Divine grace is bestowed upon Man.”