Sergey Smbatyan rubs his eyes. He's tired, he admits, but is having the time of his life. The conductor of the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra (ASSO) has been on stage with his ensemble nearly every day over the past three weeks, as part of the Malta International Music Festival (15 April – 1 May). The ASSO is the festival's ensemble-in-residence, performing alongside the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra (also conducted by Smbatyan). In addition, Smbatyan and the ASSO collaborated with the finalists of the Malta International Piano Competition, which ran at the same time as the festival.
As a former editor of International Piano magazine, I've attended dozens of international piano competitions! It's unusual for all six finalists to be given the opportunity to perform a concerto round in the public eye, and practically unheard of for the orchestra to play full concertos with all the finalists on the same day. But that's the challenge that faced Smbatyan on Sunday 29 April, as the ASSO supported the hopeful pianists.
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As ever, standard competition repertoire was on the menu, and we heard Prokofiev 3 (twice), Rachmaninov 2 (twice), Chopin 1 and the Grieg. The soloists battled the unflattering acoustic of Valetta's Mediterranean Conference Hall (an historic building that has had a roof added, creating an acoustic not dissimilar to Wimbledon's centre court) and all demonstrated enormous skill and potential.
Anna Ulaieva, 32, was named the overall winner, scooping €100,000 (which, pleasingly, was presented as an oversized faux cheque, in true Comic Relief style). By the time the announcements were made – following a superb recital by the Khachaturian Trio – it wasn't only Ulaieva that was overcome with emotion after a whirlwind of a day.
The competition is in its sixth year and offers significant cash prizes (between them, the six finalists received a total of €200,000) courtesy of the European Foundation for Support of Culture. Russian artists (including Grigory Sokolov, Nikolai Lugansky and Denis Kozhukhin) and repertoire featured prominently – although by no means exclusively – throughout this year’s festival. The 2018 composer-in-residence was Maltese-Russian-American composer Alexey Shor, who premiered several new works throughout the course of the festival.
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Shor is a former child maths prodigy who discovered a knack for composing just six years ago. His music is highly melodic, accessible and probably destined for huge popularity. A conversation with the composer revealed that he thinks of his output in terms of neo-classicism, inspired by 18th- and 19th-century repertoire. It's always interesting to hear contemporary music that goes against the grain, and Shor's approach is unfashionably retrospective. There exists flickers of Russian romanticism in his work, as well as Western pop influences.
This melding of styles was heard in one of the closing concerts (30 April), where Elgar's Cello Concerto. The renowned concerto was superbly performed by BBC New Generation Artist Narek Hakhnazaryan and the ASSO, this time conducted by the soloist's brother, Tigran Hakhnazaryan, with Smbatyan awarded a rare night off. The piece was bookended by Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet overture and Shor's Three Pieces for Cello and Orchestra. The latter was new to me and the Elgar concerto new to my Russian neighbour, who marvelled at the weeping cello. We observed our respective cultural heritages, energised by music's adhesive power.
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