Part of the recent wave of appointments and replacements to hit the culture scene, Brian Schembri is now artistic director and principal conductor of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. Alex Vella Gregory speaks to the maestro about the direction he sees the orchestra taking.

Deep down he’s a Valletta boy, and his favourite colour is green. He is also the new artistic director and principal conductor of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO). Brian Schembri is certainly not a new face on the local cultural scene. He has conducted the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra on several occasions to great acclaim, and his outspoken views have drawn criticism and adulation from various quarters. How does he feel about this appointment?

“I was approached by the MPO management asking me whether I would accept to have a more important role in the orchestra’s artistic development. Before I actually said yes, I insisted that they know exactly what they wanted from me. Of course, I was happy to be offered the post, but I wanted to make sure that we all knew what this meant, and not just for me but for all involved.”

So what does the role involve exactly? It is a complex issue, fraught with pitfalls, and Mro Schembri chooses his words carefully. It is clear that this will not be a musical joyride or orchestral leisure cruise. He is set on improving the orchestra to the best of his abilities and within the natural limits our local reality imposes.

Does that imply that the orchestra is currently in a bad place? “The MPO has been through a lot of very positive changes over the past decade,” says Mro Schembri. “I have no problem acknowledging that. On the contrary, I have always tried to acknowledge this by my choice of repertoire and by giving my collaborations with the MPO the same engagement I give to other professional orchestras. Still, there are some issues which have to be tackled.”

One of the first exercises he wants to undertake is an analysis of the orchestra’s programming. “The MPO is a symphonic orchestra, but how much symphonic repertoire does it actually play? My suspicion is that actual symphonic music is under-represented in its programming.”

Is that symphonic repertoire important or even relevant? “What is the use of having a symphony orchestra which does not play symphonic repertoire? It’s like having a water-polo team and you make them play billiards to train. It defeats the purpose and impedes artistic and professional development.”

Schembri is aware of the obligations of modern orchestras towards the taxpayer and its patrons. In this sense, he has had to come to terms with crossovers, alternative repertoire and unorthodox projects, as long as they are done well. But he is also adamant on preserving the MPO’s core values as a symphony orchestra.

“If we believe in the MPO, we have to create an educational and cultural system that allows it to grow.” What if we don’t believe in this?

“I do, and the MPO does, so for the moment that is what counts. I will definitely not be the one to ask whether we need a symphonic orchestra.”

One of the first exercises he wants to undertake is an analysis of the orchestra’s programming

What symphonic repertoire would he like to do with the MPO? “More of the classics and definitely Sibelius, Mahler, Bruckner…”

Clearly, the maestro is not into light music. Schembri also comments on the limited local pool of orchestral musicians, notwithstanding the fact that there is so much great musical talent around.

“Part of the problem is the size of the local population. It is naturally impossible to have a surplus of high quality professional orchestral musicians in such a small country. However, there is also a problem with music education.”

Isn’t the School of Music meant to address that?

“Without going into the whole debate about having an academy, we must be careful when tackling the School of Music, or what is left of it. If we wanted the School of Music to produce quality orchestral musicians at a high professional level, then we should have planned it for such a task. In fact, if we look at its original remit, that of providing free basic music tuition to everyone, then it has more than succeeded.”

So does this appointment imply that he will be replacing Michael Laus?

“In all public communication, both Culture Parliamentary Secretary Jose Herrera and myself made it expressly clear that I will not be replacing anyone. As far as I am informed, Mro Laus is still resident conductor and discussing his future role with management and the ministry.”

Of course, a question on V18 seems to be almost obligatory, so I ask him how he sees the MPO fit in with V18.

“I have not been involved in the process so far, so it would be premature for me to comment. However, it goes without saying that the MPO has a very important role to play. I have lived most of my professional life in France and I have learnt to appreciate how much a city can capitalise on being European Capital of Culture.’

In all fairness, Schembri does not need a lot of convincing when it comes to Valletta. He is after all practically a Valletta boy and comes from a family of seasoned musicians.

“When you are related to the Borg Bonacis, the Fitenis from my mother’s side and the Schembris from my father’s side, all renowned Valletta families, it is hard not to be a part of Valletta.”

Although he was not born and bred in Valletta, he feels psychologically part of Valletta.

Has the city helped his musical formation? He pauses to think.

“Yes, it has, at least genetically. Many of my ancestors and their closest friends were musicians in Strait Street and the main cafes around Valletta, like Cafe Premier.”

But the Valletta connection goes a bit deeper than that, since his earliest musical experiences happened in the city.

How did this Valletta boy get to be a conductor?

“Purely by chance. I went to Russia to study piano, but my father advised that I should broaden my horizons so I went into conducting and composition. Ultimately, whatever I did was to become a better musician.”

And the hair? You can spot Schembri from a mile away. The general impression you get is that of a mass of curls under which a human being has taken shelter.

“I have tried controlling it, to no avail. The unkempt Beethoven look seems to work best. And when your hair is naturally messy, no one will comment if you have a bad hair day.”

And if he wasn’t a musician?

“I’d be a journalist,” he quips. “Or a multi-millionaire.”

Personally, I think the latter would suit him best. It rhymes with hair.

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