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Malta’s leading musical ensemble

Malta Philharmonic Orchestra

For half a century, the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra has been Malta’s leading musical ensemble.

Words by Julian Francalanza

Founded more than 50 years ago, the Malta Philarmonic Orchestra can trace its origins back to far more humble roots than one might suppose when looking at its current iteration. After all, it was only in 1968 that a group of musicians who had been part of a chamber orchestra under the patronage of the Commander-in-Chief of the British navy in Malta – popularly known as the C-in-C Orchestra – decided to group together and form their own orchestra.

This was the first manifestation of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, which we have today, although at this time it was merely known as the Manoel Theatre Orchestra. As the name suggests, its scope was far more restricted in these early years, since its role was limited to being the resident orchestra at the Manoel Theatre, where it performed both operas, as well as symphonic concerts. In fact, it was only in 1997 that the orchestra became an independent entity, taking on the name of The National Orchestra of Malta, and employing, as its first resident conductor, the internationally esteemed composer, Joseph Vella. Ten years later, the orchestra was finally expanded into a full-size symphony orchestra, only performing for the first time as the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) in 2008.

Nowadays, the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra has garnered both local, as well as international respect and recognition. As the only professional orchestra in the Maltese Islands, the MPO averages more than one performance per week, boasting a repertoire which ranges from classical, to rock, pop, and all the way up to contemporary music. Locally, they also organise or take part in annual music events which have become staples in the Maltese cultural calendar, such as Rockestra, the Baroque International Music Festival, and the yearly concert put up by the internationally acclaimed local tenor, Joseph Calleja.

Moreover, moving a long way away from the confines of the Manoel Theatre, the MPO also began touring abroad in 2001, and since then has performed in Brussels at the City Hall, as well as taking part in productions of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte in Palermo and Bernstein’s Candide in Rome.

In recent years, the international engagements of the MPO have become ever more prestigious, with the orchestra undergoing a Chinese tour in 2014/15, touring Germany and Austria in 2018, and engaging in its first American tour in 2019, where the musicians also had the opportunity to perform in the renowned Carnegie Hall in New York.

This latter event is one which particularly stands out in the memory of Marcelline Agius, the violinist who joined the orchestra when she was just 17 years old, when it was still only the Manoel Theatre Orchestra. However, since then, she has risen to become the orchestral leader, bearing witness to the rise and establishment of the MPO on the international stage in the process.

However, neither Marcelline, nor the MPO itself are content to merely rest on their laurels. The orchestra leader also dedicates her time to tutoring other young musicians, with the aim of nurturing them so that they too may one day follow in her footsteps and become full members of the orchestra.

This is no easy task, since achieving membership within the MPO requires one to have at least obtained a diploma in their instrument of choice, as well as have accumulated a significant number of years of experience with it, so as to ensure that the musical output of the orchestra continues to be of the highest calibre.

However, the orchestra itself also continues to help young musicians along this path through endeavours such as the MPO Academy, and the Malta Youth Orchestra (MYO). The latter can be regarded as the youth branch of the orchestra, with the musicians covering core musical pieces spanning various different genres and eras, and with particularly talented members often being given the opportunity of applying for internships with the senior branch.

Malta youth orchestra

Additionally, the MYO also performs in its own right, starting with its first public performance in 2004. Since then, it has been continuously active, performing at national events like Notte Bianca, and even taking part in an annual concert alongside the MPO.

Such projects, alongside regular rehearsals, workshops, and master classes, help to train and nurture the skills and potential of the Maltese Islands’ young orchestral musicians, with the aim of seeing them become future members of the MPO, thereby securing the national orchestra’s future, and helping to push it towards ever higher peaks.