I bumped into Maestro Michael Laus in Queen’s Square while he was on his way to the Manoel Theatre for the last rehearsal before a symphony concert that launched the season at the Manoel.
The event was completely sold out, but that be because of the small size of the theatre itself. The concert could have easily filled 1,000 seats, had they been available.
It is a complete fallacy to think that serious music is not popular in Malta. Apart from the people who flock to Gozo – even in stormy weather – to enjoy the two operas that are put on there every autumn, there are more people who are interested in classical music than meets the eye.
People have different tastes. For some, the baroque season that will be held at the Manoel Theatre in January will be the high point of the season; for others, a concert such as last Friday’s can have great attraction. The concert had none other than Carmine Lauri performing the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 and leading the Brahms Symphony No. 1 under the direction of Mro Laus.
Michael Laus has been associated with Malta’s National Orchestra since 1991, as resident conductor, chairman and Music Director, a post which he currently still holds. He has presented a vast repertoire of symphonic music and opera, including many first performances of new works and music by Maltese composers.
He has also appeared as a pianist and harpsichordist in concerto performances conducted from the keyboard. He is also responsible for the series of Baroque Concerts organised by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2004 he founded the National Youth Orchestra.
He has been guest conductor with orchestras such as the Bournemouth Symphony, the Slovak Philharmonic, the Slovak Radio and the Berne Symphony. He has been Associate Professor at the University of Malta since 1994, where he is responsible for performance studies.
In preparation for the Brahms symphony, he first rehearsed it with small groups and only in the last few days did he hold full rehearsals with the entire orchestra. He is convinced that working like this in small groups helps the musicians understand the work better.
The MPO does keep itself busy. It holds some 50 concerts a year, including state occasions, sponsored concerts like the APS concert and the University’s Foundation Day concert. It has also developed a wide range of offerings, from Rockestra to the playing of film music and performing at operas.
Nevertheless, it also manages to find time and space to come up with activities that interest young people and attract them to serious music. The orchestra has been doing this for many years and each time it is a resounding success.
The MPO is once again preparing for the event that focuses on children, which is held in the more informal atmosphere of the Robert Samut Hall, where the orchestra rehearses.
Children love these sessions and such activities draw them near to music that they would otherwise not hear. They even adapt to pieces, such as those by Stravinsky, that would be difficult for their elders to hear and appreciate. As far as the MPO is concerned, their aim is to get through to children and through them to their parents.
Traditionally, this event would be structured around a rendition of Peter and the Wolf but it has since broadened out to more contemporary music.
It is amazing how children adapt to music. Children such as Mro Laus’ own 16-year-old daughter, relish the rock base of baroque music.
Children then pull in their parents. The ticket price is very cheap: €15 for four people because it is important this is not seen as something that is given for nothing.
The orchestra today is predominantly young, with an average age in the 30s. The older generation, those three or four who used to play in the Commander-in-Chief’s orchestra, are now nearing retirement age.
And the orchestra is now a mix of Maltese and foreign musicians. When foreign musicians began coming in, some years ago, the rest of the orchestra was quite anxious and alarmed. Today, more and more have come in. They are often superbly trained because they are coming from difficult situations abroad where orchestras are being closed and where many musicians play on a one-concert basis and contract. Such a background has made them even better players as they are up against keen competition and this, in turn, has stimulated the Maltese players who have subsequently become better and better players.
Almost half of the MPO players are foreigners, coming from a diversity of countries, from Russia and the US, from Holland, France and Spain, and even from Hungary.
At the same time, many young Maltese musicians are finding increased opportunities to go and study abroad. Obviously, this depends on what instrument they play and whether its exponents are in short supply here and abroad.
One thing of which the MPO is proud is playing original and contemporary works by Maltese composers, such as at the President’s New Year Concert and the Independence Day Concert. A competition is usually held to choose the piece to be played and last time there were some four others that could just as easily have won.
The MPO also undertakes periodical overseas visits. It has been on an exchange visit to Pesaro and also played for an opera in Palermo. Twinning today is becoming more and more difficult because the financial crisis has forced many orchestras to reduce their expenses.
Many of the musicians who played with the National Youth Orchestra after Michael Laus established it in 2004 are now full-time musicians with the MPO. Young people continue to be attracted to serious music, as is evidenced by their participation in various concerts and their studies both in Malta and abroad. As for choirs, there are a number of very good amateur choirs in Malta.
Maestro Laus came to direct the orchestra as a result of playing the piano. He feels the transition has immensely enriched him and he hopes that through his action, he is enriching the MPO and indirectly the general public.
With over 60 members, the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra is “too big” for the Manoel Theatre, according to its director.
Despite changing its name from the Manoel Theatre Orchestra to the National Orchestra to the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, at present the orchestra does not have its own theatre, as do so many philharmonic orchestras abroad – such as the Berliner, the Halle and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
However, the MPO has a long historic link to the Manoel Theatre and in a way this has now become the orchestra’s limitation. Like the baroque Manoel Theatre, the MPO is restricted by size to the type of orchestra that used to play in the Baroque era. Its size thus limits its performances to classics such as works by Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and perhaps Tchaikovsky, but it can never have the number of players that, for instance, would be required for a symphony by Shostakovich.
This is an old complaint: apart from the Manoel Theatre, there is only the Mediterranean Conference Centre, which the MPO used to play Carmina Burana. But there are problems with the acoustics at the MCC.
Malta, as is well known, lacks a fully-fledged concert hall. Apart from limiting the size of the MPO and thus restricting the range of the music it can play, the Manoel Theatre also severely restricts the number of people who attend the MPO’s concerts.