Gershwin’s closing act
Alex Vella Gregory reviews Wayne Marshall’s direction of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra for Porgy and Bess.
There is something irresistible about Gershwin, almost addictive. He is one of those composers whose music requires relentless energy.
I am happy to say that the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Wayne Marshall, together with four amazing soloists, the St Monica and Mirabitur choirs, and the Mirabitur Youth Choir, did justice to Gershwin’s genius as the final act to this year’s Malta Arts Festival.
Gershwin’s opera is a bold piece of work. It deals with a love story between a cripple and a ‘loose’ woman in an Afro-American community. Considering that it was written in 1935, it really must have been a bold piece of work.
The concert consisted of excerpts from the three-hour-long opera. Thankfully, Marshall was wise enough not to simply cut out arias and duets, but frame them with the appropriate introductions and recitatives.
This put each piece into context, although a full synopsis of the opera would have been helpful in the programme notes.
Marshall is an energetic and communicative conductor. He has a way of moulding and directing the ensemble that is simply breathtaking. He also has the added bonus of being a performer and he himself played the opening ragtime on a honky-tonk piano. You could tell that his playing fired up the singers and the orchestra, as they immediately launched into the opera.
The orchestra provided some great playing, especially from the brass and percussion sections. The opening lacked the necessary drive, and sounded unclear. However, I do suspect that a lot of these imbalances were more due to problems with acoustics and general amplification than musical shortcomings.
These same problems also seemed to plague the choir, which often sounded more like a backing track, as it had a rather odd ambience sound. This was indeed areal pity because there was some very fine choral work.
Both choirs tackled Gershwin’s difficult harmonies effortlessly, and the voices blended perfectly with each other.
They also had the added bonus (and charm) of the Mirabitur Youth Choir, whose small contribution simply lifted the whole finale.
The solo parts were tackled by a quartet of foreign singers who proved to be a formidable formation. Indira Mahajan has a very dramatic voice and made a very strong Bess. Gershwin was rather cruel to his anti-heroine and gave her very little by way of memorable numbers. Still, Mahajan imbued this complex character with a lot of humanity.
Mahajan shone best in the love duet Bess You Is My Woman Now. Her powerful voice was well matched by Kevin Short’s Porgy.
Short has a rich and resonant voice, was most apparent in The Buzzard Song, an interpretatively difficult aria that requires more than just ‘swing’.
Ronald Samm sang the roles of Jake and Sportin’ Life. He shone best in the latter, with some fine singing in There’s a Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon. He successfully brought out both the comic and the sinister in Sportin’ Life. Samm also has a very clear timbre and a striking physicality when singing.
The roles of Clara and Serena were sung by Angela Renée Simpson. She has one of the most powerful and intense voices I have ever heard on a local stage. Although I found her Summertime a bit too rushed for my liking, she gave a splendid interpretation of My Man is Gone Now.
Alas, despite all of this, the concert fell short of being ‘great’. The main culprit is nothing less than the space itself. It is no great secret that the Mediterranean Conference Centre has an awful acoustic, one which is impossible to correct with ordinary amplification. The concert was marred by a lot of imbalances and noises throughout.
The reason for this is pretty simple. The MCC is a conference centre, not a concert hall. Actually, it is merely a roofed courtyard. It is hardly a fitting venue for any concert, let alone for the closing concert of the Malta Arts Festival.
Sadly, the alternatives are few and inadequate. So until we get the roofed ruins, we must make do with the roofed courtyard.
Of course, this does not take away anything from the musicians’ merit. If anything, it reflects poorly not on them, but on those who should know better. I just hope all the musicians realise that they can do something about it, because, really and truly, ‘it ain’t necessarily so’.