Dreams do come true in Russia | Brian Schembri

DENISE AZZOPARDI interviews Maestro Brian Schembri prior to the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra’s first Grand Orchestral Concert featuring works by Tchaikovsky. She is intrigued by how Russia, his home away from home, moulded him into the passionate artist that he is today

Maestro Brian Schembri
Maestro Brian Schembri

The Malta Philharmonic Orchestra’s first Grand Orchestral Concert will feature two works by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky − his Violin Concerto and Symphony No 6 ‘Pathétique’. What brought you to come up with these particular pieces for this concert?

Tchaikovsky is one of the greatest composers who not only has withstood the greatest critic of all – time – but has also been a favourite of people from all nations, cultural and social backgrounds. The Pathetique is his best symphony and, in his own words, his most beloved one. So what better choice to offer our public could there be than the composer’s own favourite? In many ways, Radulovic in Tchaikovsky’s ever-popular Violin Concerto would perfectly complement the very tensely emotional personal statement of the composer’s last masterpiece.

Do you feel any particular connection with Tchaikovsky?

Tchaikovsky is Russia and Russia is Tchaikovsky. Since childhood, my teacher and father, Carmelo Schembri, instilled in me a particular love for Russian composers and pianists. This was in fact the reason that I chose to go to the USSR to further my studies where I spent eight of the most important and beautiful years of my life studying in the Kiev and Moscow Conservatories, both named after Tchaikovsky. His music was (and still is) not only loved, revered and adored, but is part of the essential spirit of the cultural landscape. In my own Russian-speaking home, Tchaikovsky is a holy name.

How have your studies and general experience living in Russia contributed towards your development as a musician and conductor?

I had the immense privilege to study in two of the main historical cities of what was then the USSR, both having had a fundamental impact on the cultural history of the world.

I was fortunate enough to study with some of the best masters that I could ever dream of. I was practically adopted by them as well as by the local people around me and treated as one of them, loved, and guided artistically in the moral and ethical sense. I met there, personalities of immense culture, profound and rare spirituality and lived the life of a people for whom art in general and music in particular is not only entertainment, but a source of meditation and contemplation on human existence, a strong social bond and a deep belief in the universal values of humanity.

During those last years before “perestroika” had even been mentioned, in a supposedly atheist country, I learnt what is meant by man not living by bread alone – I learnt it not from books, but from real life.

This page would never suffice to express my deep eternal gratitude to that nation, its culture and to a number of individuals who have meant and still mean so much to me.

How does your experience as musician and conductor help in the preparation of the orchestra for a performance of demanding and important works?

In any concert I prepare, I am simultaneously remembering, learning, revising, discovering, challenging, and questioning my own experience. An artist is the medium through whom the profound questions of life, beauty and truth are expressed and hopefully revealed in rare moments of grace. In preparing for my concerts, these are my leading guides.

What are the attributes that make Nemanja Radulovic stand out as a most suitable violinist for this part?

A highly talented musician of the younger generation, Nemanja Radulovic is also an extremely original and creative artist. Trained in the best traditions of great Serbian, German and French masters, he is also very much a child of his times as his appearance and stage presence reveal. Coming from such a natural inner talent, this echoes the highly emotional, tense and ecstatic energy that Tchaikovsky and all the Romantic aesthetics are often associated with.

Why would you think that classical music relates to the modern society? Why do you think it so important?

In a world in which spiritual artistic processes are determined by commercial argumentation, demagogy rules, so any notion of Art is doomed, as is any hope of Humanity.

Due to our present-day consumerist culture of cheap disposable products, Art has become a piece of merchandise. It is inadvertently relegated to the lowest level to be sold to the largest numbers. On the other hand, when artistic quality is the central concern and fulcrum upon which all is built by creators, performers and policy makers, then one can really hope for a “democracy”.

Far from being elitist, authentic artists strive to share the most precious treasures of the human spirit with all who wish to participate in this universal communion.

The MPO Grand Orchestral Concert, dedicated to the music of Tchaikovsky, will take place at the Mediterranean Conference Centre on January 30, at 19:30. For bookings, email [email protected] or phone 2559 5750. For further information, visit www.maltaorchestra.com. The MPO is providing complimentary shuttle service from Valletta Waterfront