Carmine Lauri: Give me a tune and I am happy!
He has passed a long way from the child who played wooden spoon pretending that the spoon is a violin till one of the most famous Maltese musicians. Since the year 2000, he has been Co-Leader of the Concertmaster of the Oxford Philharmonic and Guest Leader of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra.
At 2015 he has been awarded the Malta Society of Arts Gold Medal in recognition for his outstanding international career. He is living in London and he plays with the most famous international orchestras but he also permanently plays in his homeland. In April 2018 he performed on Malta International Music Festival with Armenian State Symphony Orchestra. More touches to Carmine Lauri portrait in our interview
– You left Malta very young to pursue a music career. Now you often return as guest leader of the orchestra and as soloist with the orchestra and occasionally for recitals. How do you feel you fit in the today’s Maltese musical scene?
– Performing in Malta will always remain a regular yearly date/s in my busy diary of concerts. I am very pleased to say that my appearances on Malta’s music stages have always been well attended by Maltese music lovers and have always been given warm welcome. I feel that I always delivered what I considered to be the best I could give in any concert I performed in Malta and have always thought of the audience first, in regards to what I choose to play in solo concerts. I wish to carry on my contribution as a renowned artist towards securing a solid foundation for the love of music both for our regular attendees and hopefully to others that perhaps have never been to a classical concert before.
– How has the Maltese musical scene changed since you left Malta? In the past we used to say that it is impossible to have a career in Malta as a performer, do you think that this is still the case?
– The fact remains that Malta is a tiny island and therefore the opportunities for a musician to have a solo career in Malta is tricky. Of course one can have a lifelong career such as being a member of the MPO or a chamber group. It is not impossible to make a living as a musician, but the opportunities remain limited, compared to a same career in much larger countries.
– The MPO has many members from many different countries and whiel some of its members have been there for a long time others seem to be changing quite often. What does this contribute to the orchestra and do you think that the changes are beneficial for the orchestra?
– In the case of the MPO I feel that the benefits have been immense. The orchestra has grown from strength to strength and broadened its horizons. I think that employing foreign musicians has not only given us the opportunity to widen our repertoire and styles but brought along a competitive atmosphere within the workplace, competitive in the sense of better music making, an opportunity for our Maltese musicians to work alongside other musicians who come from different backgrounds and experiences from other orchestras abroad. The MPO is tackling some challenging works that were never perhaps possible to perform due to their demands and the number of musicians that the composition requires, as was the case last January in Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben which I proudly guest lead and in my opinion has been one of the most important concerts the MPO has ever performed to date.
– What is your role as guest leader with the MPO, how does this differ from being the regular leader of an orchestra?
– My role as a leader of an orchestra does not differ from one orchestra to another. I turn up on the “hot seat” as it’s called in the trade to make music with other musicians and ensure that as an orchestra we prepare for a concert with our full potential. Needless to say every orchestra is different, has different levels of experience and different calibres of musicians and I adjust my output accordingly. Every conductor I work with is different, have different agendas on their mind and different experiences and if I feel that there is some musical aspect that has not been tackled during rehearsals and I can contribute towards my observations I will have no hesitation to stand up and address the orchestra in the most direct way sometimes or subtle ways. The objective us always the same wherever I go. Details and respecting what the composer is requesting from us musicians, whether it’s dynamics, colours, phrasing, balance or intonation. Most of my experiences with the MPO have been in Malta where unfortunately we are not so blessed with the most amazing acoustics as both the MCC and the Manoel Theatre were built for either conferences or plays/operas respectively, meaning that they are very dry sounding. Therefore I always emphasize during rehearsals that we do not play notes too short as the acoustics will not help us phrase properly. When the MPO perform in the Musikverein in Vienna it is a different story. No matter how short notes are played, they still have an incredible bloom to them. We have to always adjust our playing depends on where we perform and as a concertmaster this issue is always on my mind and a priority and pay a lot of attention to it.
– Having achieved consistently high grades at school at one point as a teenager you found yourself having to choose between taking up engineering, what made you choose music instead?
– I picked up a pair of wooden spoons to pretend I was playing the violin probably before I learnt how to hold a pencil properly. I was to play the violin even though I have a huge interest in engineering and sound recording equipment, which are the two hobbies that are closest to my heart. I studied hard at school alongside my violin practice during my younger days however a decision was taken at the age of 17 and pursued my dream to study music abroad. I am very grateful to my uncle Alfred who resided next door to us in Paola who through his almost daily appearances at our house to play his violin with my eldest sister Stephanie, I was being exposed to the violin and the only way I could try to join in with the duo was by the use of kitchen wooden spoons, sawing away happily next to him without making any nose.
– You are a regular member of the LSO and perform as soloist does your work schedule leave you tme for non-musical activities? What are these, or are they also connected with your musical life?
– Life in the LSO is incredibly hectic. I think it is one of the busiest orchestra ever, and as a leader/co-leader the demands are a lot. Free time can at times be a dream for us members due to so much touring around the world, concerts and recording sessions. We get through repertoire like nothing else and the job requires unbelievable stamina. I try to maintain a healthy lifestyle even though I admit that I do not frequent a gym so often. Walking is a must however and wherever I can walk I will do so, no matter whether I’m challenged by rain or snow. I can’t say I am a keen traveller because as I travel so much that in my spare time I love to be at home playing with my toys, which include a number of tape recorders, mountain of tapes, and hifi equipment and lots of tools to do my own maintenance on my own equipment. I also have grown to like metal turning and have bought myself a metal lathe and am fascinated by the challenges of reducing a piece of stock metal into something else, making small parts or cutting threads in metal. Youtube is my daily attendance to school and am mostly self taught. I do love going on holidays abroad too with my wife or kids and do enjoy the occasional visits to different restaurants when time permits.
– Who is the conductor with whom you enjoy playing most? What is it about him that you find so inspiring?
– Every conductor brings to an orchestra a different perspective to music and have to be honest in saying that some interest me more than others, simply as a personal taste. Experience can never be thought however and one cannot forget experiences such as my time performing all Shostakovich symphonies with the LSO with the legendary giant musician, the late Mstislav Rostropovich, who lived during the war and was a close friend of the composer himself. Perhaps no other conductor can have the same impact on these symphonies as Slava did and I speak on behalf all my colleagues in the LSO. I am a great fan of Valery Gergiev who was principal conductor of the LSO for about 10 years and his insight into his native Russian music is in my opinion unparalleled. I have learnt so much from Valery in rehearsal, especially when he really dug deep into the scores of Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. I watched him with admiration rehearsing us and at times I have written quotes on my own music from what he had just said in rehearsal to either our section or others sections because they were either so genial or humorous. Valery created music as he went along, no day was the same as the previous and at times concerts were different from what we rehearsed. I speak for myself, I am not a fan of over prepared rehearsals and concerts being a perfect copy of so many rehearsals. I believe an artist ‘s temperament changes day by day, just like our moods do and therefore so should music. I loved the challenge and he will always remain one of my favourite musicians. Others include the legendary Carlos Kleiber, respected by every living musician in existence, however I sadly never had the opportunity to work with him. He had a relatively limited repertoire, but what he conducted remain a reference! Unbelievable
– Have you ever played under a female conductor?
Yes I have many times. They have included Susanna Mallki, Elim Chan and Xian Zheng.
– What is your favourite repertoire/ concerto?
– Give me a tune and I am happy! I have a varied range of styles and music that I like however the music that remains constantly closest to my heart is the music of Tchaikovsky and Verdi. These are my top. I have days where I go absolutely nuts on some less known work and listen for days on end. I refer to works such as Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony or Cesar Frank’s D Minor symphony. I love the music of Brahms and Smetana as well. I love the music of another 50 composers too but I can’t mention them all. I fall in love with a particular work depends on what I want to feel inside. Right now I keep listening to either The Sleeping Beauty or the Capriccio Italien by Tchaikovsky. Popular works perhaps, but they are genial. Who knows what I shall be listening to tomorrow? As regards concertos I vary from violin concertos by Glazunov or Korngold to Rachmaninov concertos for piano. I love also operas by Verdi especially sung by great singers such as Pavarotti and when accompanied by my favourite orchestra, the one of the Wiener Staatsoper.
– As soloist do you prefer playing with an orchestra or giving recitals?
– I cannot say I have a preference however I would miss one or the other if I just settled for one! I love giving recitals as I can vary the amount of repertoire as much as I like in just one concert, by giving different encores also at the end, which is a speciality of mine and having a partnership with a pianist on stage is very rewarding and has plenty of freedom to it. With an orchestra one feels such an overwhelming experience on stage, having so many musicians accompanying you. I love it and can’t wait for my next concerto experience which will be on the 7th July in Gozo with the MPO accompanying me in Glazunov’s violin concerto.
– It seems that any performer who becomes famous often does this on the basis of a fantastic technique, which without doubt you possess. But there is more to a great performance than technique. What is it?
– Technique is not music. Technique is our tool to deliver music to the best of our abilities. Unfortunately we lose our technical agility as age takes its toll on every performer however inversely musicianship matures as we grow older. We can learn how to master technique but being a great musician requires experience, requires living life. A great performance is a combination of effortless technique and our ability to understand phrasing, varying our dynamics, colours, musical timings and other aspects. What brings tears listener’s eyes however is not technique, it’s simply our ability to touch hearts by the way we deliver our message to music. That is the most important aspect of this incredible language called music.
– Which if any of the great violinists do you admire most and how has he/she inspired you?
– Jascha Heifetz. The man is perfect! The man is a phenomenon, spent a life being supreme, being God’s fiddler. Certain repertoire played by Heifetz has left its stamp on us all. We can only admire and watch and try to copy his style but he’s the master. Of course I love David Oistrakh, Nathan Milstein and Ivry Gitlis, another two giants who have inspired me all my life especially Ivry whose freedom of expression and the way he plays left a lasting impression on me. When I heard him for the first time I think I did not blink once throughout a whole flight from Madrid to London! I could mention others such as Leonid Kogan and Andrei Korsakov who tragically died in his 40s. An incredible violinist. I have also great admiration for Itzhak Perlman and Gidon Kremer. Of course there are other violinists that I enjoy either working with or listen to but the old timers cannot be beaten! They’ve been there before us and done it already with incredible perfection!
– You are often asked to give master classes. What advise would you give to a rising violinist?
– My advice is always positive! I encourage the students to carefully study a score, not just to concentrate on their own solo part. That’s not what the music is all about. Listen to the piano part or orchestra accompaniment in their heads when they practice, feel those wonderful harmonies, they help phrasing and colour. Listen to other artists, never stop listening to music. It should be living in our heads 24 hours a day, just like when we breath. Practice slowly, love what you do, explore, experiment, don’t get bored by repetition. The violin is a toy in our hands, it offers endless capabilities to experiment with different fingerings and bowings. Look for them and discover as you go along. Don’t settle for one way of playing or one way of fingering pattern all your life. The day we stop experimenting is the day we should start worrying!
– During the Malta International Music Festival we have heard different opinions about what it means to a violinist to play on a Strad, or an Amati violin. On the one hand we have heard that with a great violin in hand you feel that the notes are in the instrument and all that the performer does is to make it speak. On the other hand we have also heard that as long as a violin has a good tone that it can project, the instrument itself does not make a difference. It is solely the performer that counts. What is your opinion?
– This reminds me of the great story from Jascha Heifetz when a keen admirer of Heifetz went up to him after a recital and said to him: “Mr Heifetz your violin sounded so amazing today”. Heifetz being cool and witty simply picked up his Guarnieri del Gesu, lifted it close to his ears and said to the lady: “Funny! I can’t hear anything!”. Point made. Personally speaking I have played by now a number of Strads and Guarnieris and they are incredible violins. They do come at am extortionate price nowadays and it’s only through the generous support of investors or collectors that we get to perform on these beauties. The last Strad I brought to Malta was the Baron Deurbroucq Stradivari made in 1727 which Janine Jansen played on for some time. I loved playing on it the Wieniawski 1st concerto however they are temperamental instruments and under unfavourable conditions they can really struggle. I think the Strad struggled in our humid conditions in Malta. Another Strad I played on some 11 years ago and in the same venue seemed to suffer less, from what I remember. Each instrument needs to be played differently as they respond to different bow pressures or even different bows sometimes, however when one gets to know the instrument very well the possibilities can be endless, just like the love given by a pet to its owner. I love playing Stradivaris and can’t wait for the next opportunity to pick up another one and perform on it. Through my connections with so many violin soloists I always make it a must to ask them kindly to play a few notes on their instrument and have played on some amazing Cremonese instruments, however I hope that one day I will have the opportunity to pick up both Paganini’s violin and Jascha Heifetz’s Guarnieris even though it may not be so easy as asking say either Anne-Sophie Mutter or Maxim Vengerov or Leonidas kavakos to play on their Strads whilst working with them so regularly.
– Throughout your career you have played been playing with different orchestras including the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the London Philharmonic, the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra the Czech Philharmonic, the Oxford Philharmonic, the Orquestra Municipal de Caracas, and the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra etc. During the Malta International Music Festival 2018 you played with the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra. As a soloist could you tell us something about the orchestra?
– I loved every minute working with the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra because it is such a youthful orchestra and had the opportunity to not only perform as soloist with them in one concert but to return to them as their guest concertmaster. I had the pleasure to work with 11 of the musicians a few months earlier when they came purposely to Malta to help us out form a big orchestra to perform Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, a joint collaboration between the MPO and the ASSO. Their youthfulness and fresh approach to music was evident in their smile, in their genuine love for music, always giving their best every time we played. I felt I inspired them by my playing perhaps and I loved working with them, as a matter of fact I am planning to go to Yerevan to perform with them hopefully again by the end of the year. My collaboration with them will remain in my heart for a long time to come. They are superb and enthusiastic young players and look forward to my next experience with them.
– How was the collaboration between the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra and Armenian State Symphony Orchestra?
– I think that the collaboration was fruitful and productive. My experience with such a collaboration was back in January as I was not involved in any of the concerts they performed together during the festival in April. I hope that both managements van arrange another collaboration so the ASSO musicians can come back to Malta for other big projects, such as performing perhaps a big Mahler Symphony together. I hope that I can be with them too to lead the orchestra again.
– What did you personally find most interesting in the program of Malta International Music Festival?
– For me this was an amazing opportunity for Malta in that so much repertoire was presented to the public in a span of around 2 weeks. It was a challenge, especially for the orchestra and conductor who performed in most of the concerts.
– How can you describe the significance of this musical event?
– This festival has given Malta an immense exposure around the world, especially to those that follow classical music. International artists have come to our Island to perform and I believe that the festival gave Malta a name as an important cultural ambassador.
Photo: © Amanda Hsu