Next May, celebrated Maltese violinist Carmine Lauri will return to these shores for a concert at the Mediterranean Conference Centre (MCC) with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) as part of the InClassica Malta international Music Festival. Lauri is a recipient of the prestigious National Order of Merit and the 2015 Malta Society of Arts Gold Medal, and is best-known for his work as co-leader of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), a post he has held since 2001 and one which has seen him lead the orchestra in recordings for blockbuster films including Star Wars, Harry Potter and The King’s Speech.

In addition to his work with the LSO, Lauri is concertmaster of the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, guest leader of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) and has been made an associate and fellow of the Royal Academy of Music, London. We caught up with Lauri to find out more about his appearance at InClassica next year.

Can you start by explaining a little about your upcoming concert in Malta next May?  Yes, I’ll be performing in Malta next May as part of the InClassica Malta International Music Festival. I’ll be performing two works for violin and orchestra: Zigeunerweisen by Pablo de Sarasate, and Polonaise Brillante by Henryk Wieniawski. 

Both of these pieces are composed by violinists. Does this affect your interpretation of the works — perhaps giving a greater sense of musical ‘ownership’ for instance?  I enjoy both these pieces a lot and have played them many times. They have excellent melodies, are fun to play and create a technically impressive aesthetic due to the style of the writing — they’re great concert pieces. 

You’ll be sharing the stage with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) conducted by Sergey Smbatyan, have you worked with these musicians before?  I’ve had the pleasure of working with Sergey on a number of occasions, including at the InClassica Malta International Music Festival in 2018 and the Days of Maltese Music in Armenia concerts in 2019. I haven’t worked with the RPO directly before but I’m really looking forward to it and know many of the players in the orchestra already. I’m very happy the concert will be conducted by Sergey, he’s a violinist as well after all so he’ll understand what I’m doing (laughs). He’s a very responsive conductor, luckily, as I can be quite impulsive! I can trust that he will respond to anything that might happen in the performance which gives one license to take more risks. So yes, I’m looking forward to the concert a great deal. 

How long are you staying in Malta while visiting for this concert? Four days, which includes travel. It’s quite a short visit unfortunately but I’m on quite a tight schedule: I have a concert on May 3 in Oxford before flying to Malta, full days of teaching on May 5 and 6, as well as rehearsing with the RPO in preparation for the concert on May 7, and the day afterwards I fly back to London for a rehearsal with the LSO.

How often do you manage to get back to Malta these days? Usually I try to visit Malta a few times a year at least. I was booked to perform the Korngold Violin Concerto here on October 2 but unfortunately the concert was cancelled owing to COVID-19. I had also planned to visit in April but was forced to cancel my plans for the same reason. As soon as these restrictions are fully lifted, however, I would like to spend some proper time in Malta — it’s home after all. 

Casting our minds over to your work in the UK with the LSO, how did the COVID-19 pandemic affect you and your colleagues? It was a shock for everybody of course. I was actually in Malta at the time, rehearsing Mahler’s Sixth Symphony with the MPO. Once I was notified of the concert being cancelled I returned to London as soon as I could so as not to be left without a way to travel back to the UK. Unfortunately, the situation there was much the same as in Malta: I was able to attend one rehearsal with the LSO for a concert due to take place soon afterwards, but quite shortly after this government issued a national lockdown and from that point onwards I was at home. 

How did you find the experience? I coped with it quite well actually. I have many interests outside of music which kept me reasonably busy during that time, but I kept as musically active as I could, like rehearsing pieces with colleagues over the internet. It’s obviously not the same however, and it was hard on everyone — we all missed making music together in one room. The most difficult thing, however, wasn’t necessarily the restrictions themselves, but more not knowing how long they would be in place for. The challenge was therefore how long before we could play together again, and how it would feel when we finally did. The longer it takes to face an audience, the more difficult it becomes, even for very experienced players. 

Pandemic measures must make playing in an ensemble the size of an orchestra incredibly difficult, especially when one considers the practical implications. Absolutely. The librarians did a fantastic job formatting the sheet music in a way to ensure there were no quick page turns for example, as normally we would have a desk partner in order to balance these responsibilities. But yes, it was a very difficult time, especially for certain sections of the orchestra such as the wind, brass and percussion sections for example. Ordinarily they’re further away from the conductor than the strings, and during the COVID-19 pandemic especially so. Imagine trying to play a piece like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony - trying to coordinate that famous opening! They did an amazing job of course, but it’s hardly an ideal situation. 

What is the biggest challenge when leading an orchestra for the first time? If it’s an orchestra I don’t already know then actually the main thing is them getting to know me, especially the string players seated close to me. Musically speaking, there are certain things that one has to take the lead with, especially the phrasing and how this relates to the bowing we use as a section. 

Would it be accurate to describe the position of leader as much an exercise in  diplomacy as anything else? Absolutely. I can recall my first time being on trial with the LSO, around 15 years ago. I remember there being a bit of resistance to some of my ideas at one rehearsal from a couple of the longer-serving musicians. It’s a difficult balancing act: one should be careful not to come across as intrusive, but equally at some point you have to remember it’s your job. You have to prove yourself to the orchestra, as you’re surrounded by very experienced, very skilled players. One must have something to say after all, otherwise the other members of the orchestra might lose confidence in your ability to lead, but at the same time it is important to always be respectful to your colleagues’ experience. I never forgot that incident but it never stopped me from speaking my mind when I saw fit. 

The LSO has recorded the soundtracks to many famous films including Star Wars and Harry Potter. How does it feel to have been part of these projects, and do you ever sometimes find it strange to think you’ve been involved in such icons of popular culture? Yes, it can be a little surreal at times. If I’m out with my family in central London and I hear the music to the Harry Potter films playing, for example, it can be an odd moment — my name is there with the LSO in the credits, and yet nobody would recognise us on the streets, and realise that we were part of such an enormous, international project.

Sometimes we might be visited in the recording studio by someone from Hollywood — when we’re recording the music to a film of theirs for example — but afterwards they get in a limo back to their hotel and we take the tube! (laughs). But yes it’s always fantastic to be involved in such projects, and knowing that music you’ve been a part of is being played all over the world is an incredible thing. 

I understand you’ve provided the recordings for the ABRSM violin examination recordings? How does it feel to be the ‘urtext edition’ of these as it were?  It’s a strange feeling in a way, as these recordings are used all over the world as a reference guide for students learning the pieces. It was quite an interesting experience as the lower grades were in some ways more difficult. I had to play these in quite a restricted way, for example playing without vibrato, so actually the challenge there was managing to ‘contain myself’ and keeping within the confines of the piece as an examination piece. 

Returning to InClassica, you played in the 2018 incarnation of the festival (the Malta International Music Festival). Seeing the event then and the line-up for 2021, what are your thoughts on the festival’s growing size and scope? I think it’s all very positive, especially when one considers Malta’s size. After all, it opens up the possibility of hearing so many incredible international artists in a relatively short space of time. In fact, in some ways it might even be a bit overwhelming! There are so many great names coming to perform — not only soloists, but also the orchestras as well of course. So, I think it’s a great opportunity for Malta, and a fantastic event for lovers of classical music here. 

Staying on the topic of the orchestras, would you say that the number of visiting orchestras is quite significant for Malta? Absolutely – it’s unheard of here in Malta, and certainly has never happened before. I’m still trying to figure out how this is happening in some ways myself (laughs). We have an incredible wealth of homegrown talent of course, but this doesn’t detract from the benefits of having so many fantastic musicians from overseas visit Malta to perform. And in terms of the audience I really think it will be such an incredible experience, and I’m hoping that in fact the significance of the event and people's curiosity about it will encourage more people to come to the concerts. It would be great if this re-engages people with classical music, in a way that perhaps will appeal to people who ordinarily might not attend such concerts. 

Do you think this could change the way classical music is viewed in Malta?  I think it’s possible, and if so it could open the doors to some very interesting projects. When one considers for example, that at the moment Malta doesn’t have a purpose-built concert hall designed for a symphony orchestra - which is quite a sizable ensemble after all - it might be time to consider this possibility more. Of course, this doesn’t take away from the fantastic venues we already have - Teatru Manoel and the MCC - but if we would like to programme works like Mahler’s Seventh Symphony for example, which in fact calls for two orchestras, this would be quite difficult as things currently stand when considering the space available. The MPO keeps going from strength to strength also, which is so important for Malta, so it is my hope that all of these factors contribute to extend Malta’s cultural reach and as such its reputation globally. 

On the subject of the MPO, you mention that it keeps going from strength to strength. Can you tell us a little more?  I remember the orchestra before it was the MPO – when it was still the Manoel Theatre Orchestra. I never played in that ensemble in fact but used to go to concerts and watch them perform while I was growing up. It was always a very positive experience for me, especially as an aspiring player. However, without a doubt the orchestra as the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra has made great leaps and bounds, and is fast developing an international reputation. The orchestra has travelled a lot in the last few years, and that’s a very significant thing for the MPO and for Malta. I believe they’ve performed a couple of times at the Wiener Musikverein in Austria, which for me is the hall. And of course, at plenty of other fantastic venues too including the Carnegie Hall for example — so yes, the reputation internationally certainly seems to be becoming more recognised, something which I think is partly due to its collaboration with the European Foundation for Support of Culture (EUFSC), which is based here in Malta as well. What I think will be interesting is how as the orchestra develops its reputation and importantly its repertoire, how local audiences will react to some of the programming; Some repertoire is arguably more difficult, such as a Bruckner symphony for example, so I hope the audience grows in its own way too. Don’t get me wrong, nothing beats an old tune! But it’s good to expose yourself to a more unusual repertoire at the same time. 

You mention the EUFSC, a cultural organisation based here in Malta. How important do you think such collaborations are for orchestras like the MPO? Very important, and actually in the case of the EUFSC and MPO I can only say good things about the positive impacts this collaboration has made. These sorts of partnerships are especially useful when it comes to international collaborations with foreign orchestras for example, and although I haven’t been there for all of these of course, I’ve watched them online when I can and it seems to be going very well. We shouldn’t forget that it’s a very competitive environment after all, so it’s very helpful to have a supporter out there who understands what you’re trying to achieve. 

I believe your daughter, Francesca, is a musician as well? That’s correct yes, she’s in her third year studying piano at Trinity Laban in London. She’s been accompanying singers a lot in fact and really seems to enjoy this. 

Do you two play together at all?  We have, but of course we’re both very busy so don’t always have the chance to tackle bigger repertoire together. But yes, I’m very proud of her and her achievements, and I look forward to playing longer works with her, a full sonata for example. Next year will be my 50th birthday, and in the ideal world I’d like to organise some concerts to mark the occasion (COVID-19 allowing of course). Plans haven’t been fully formulated yet but I’d certainly like to play a recital with Francesca and have some other ideas I can’t discuss quite yet unfortunately.

You’ve achieved a great deal in your career so far, what advice might you give to young aspiring musicians? I’m grateful for all the experiences I’ve had, but one has to stay grounded and remember that one never knows enough. Life is a learning process after all, though it’s important to never become complacent. This is very applicable to music, and I think the most important thing I would say — and something that I really believe — is that repetition in music is incredibly dangerous. I remember hearing Barry Douglas interviewed in 1993 before performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 for the BBC Proms. He said that every time he performs that piece he buys a new copy of the music, opens it and asks himself, “What is this piece all about?” I have not forgotten those words since 1993, and they still resonate with me. It’s a challenge but it keeps music alive.

Carmine Lauri will perform at the InClassica Malta International Music Festival on May 7, 2021. For more information and to book tickets, visit www.inclassica.com

By James Cummings

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