The Malta Independent 20 March 2018, Tuesday

The wooden spoons that made music - the story of Carmine Lauri

Marika Azzopardi Tuesday, 19 April 2016, 09:16 Last update: about 3 years ago
Carmine Lauri with George Clooney during recording of Monuments Men
Carmine Lauri with George Clooney during recording of Monuments Men

Many years ago, I remember a young boy, much younger than myself, visiting his aunt's shop in Paola. The comings and goings of the boy and his sister were of no consequence in my life, apart from the fact that they were always present around the shop, whenever I happened to run an errand for my mother there. I recall them as being part of the local community, belonging to a good family like many others, two children like all the rest. But over time, I would come to recall that family many times over, every time the name Carmine Lauri came up.

Celebrated Maltese violinist Carmine Lauri was recently in Malta to receive the prestigious Malta Society of Arts' 2015 Gold Medal, making his the 67th such honour, to date.  The Malta Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce which was established 160 years ago, has bequeathed this award on illustrious names such as Sir Temi Zammit in 1904, Emvin Cremona in 1963, Oreste Chircop in 1997 and Oliver Friggieri in 2003, among others.

As a two-year-old playing with Wooden Spoons!

At the end of the event which was held at Palazzo de la Salle, the seat of the MSA in Valletta, in the presence of Her Excellency the President of Malta, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, Carmine Lauri, as ever accompanied by his faithful violin, played to all those present. He chose an intricate Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Francisco Tarrega, arranged for the violin by Ruggiero Ricci. The piece which he performed to perfection, is well-known among violinists for being extremely demanding on the technical front, even as it recaptures the Andalusian inspiration which prompted Tarrega to compose it, way back in 1896.

Snatching some time out of his fast-paced and busy musical career, Carmine accepted to be interviewed for this newspaper, revealing something of his personality, his story and his music. Speaking about the MSA's Gold Medal Carmine said: "I felt very honoured and privileged when I was informed of this some time ago, and it made me once again very proud to be Maltese. Naturally I accepted it with open arms." The receptor of the National Order of Merit in 2006, Lauri continues: "Receiving such awards, elicits an amazing feeling and makes me realise that all my hard work and sacrifices have truly paid off. My country has truly been there for me and I shall never let it down in return."

When speaking to such a prominent musician, one cannot but stop and ask about the  earliest memories of the violin and  how his love for its music was born. "My earliest memories are the very first memories, those of my wishes to play the violin. But I was far too young to do so. I had to content myself with just pretending by nicking my mum's kitchen wooden spoons. Originally destined to stir a stew or a sauce, they would double up as my imaginary silent fiddle! Music was always being played in my household, whether it were my sisters playing, or my next door neighbour uncle. He used to come along to our house every single day, and play his violin with my sister accompanying him on the piano. I used to join in with my wooden spoons anyway, so I guess I had no choice, and lucky I was too. I started my first lessons when I reached the age of four."

With Mro Lorin Maazel

I ask him who inspires him today, which musician..... "How long is a piece of string? Any great musician whether it's a conductor, a violinist or any other instrumentalist. I listen to a lot of music every day in my spare time and just to name a few of my favourite artists I can mention Luciano Pavarotti, Ivry Gitlis, Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein and Carlos Kleiber. There are so many others that I would never end mentioning them all, but anyone who can play a wonderful music phrase with depth and feeling, I will give my attention to."

Being an international performer, his music has entertained endless numbers of people including heads of state and royalty. Today he is the co-leader of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) and has been for the past 15 years. He is also the Concertmaster of the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, apart from also being guest concertmaster of several different orchestras around the world. What could have been his most exciting moment of music during the past decade? "All my performances remain exciting as they are a journey to me, but if I really had to be picky and choose, I probably will pick the performance of Wieniawski's 1st Violin Concerto, reason being that I waited many years to play it. I cannot single out one most momentous performance I experienced, as it wouldn't be fair. But I definitely cannot forget performances with Mstislav Rostropovich conducting the LSO. A giant of a musician that I was very lucky to have performed with quite a lot."

Carmine Lauri has had the unique experience of performing with the LSO through several recordings of major movie sound tracks including the ever popular Star Wars. He explains something of the process: "The orchestra gets booked to record the soundtrack of a particular movie and we turn up at the recording studio and sight read the music that is presented to us. We all wear headphones and follow a click track which serves a purpose of synchronising the music with the pre-recorded movie images. We never know what type of music we will be recording whether it would be a type of soundtrack that is mostly very still and quiet or the type which is very heroic and fast such as for the Star Wars movies. It's always a challenge and I can truly say that the London Symphony Orchestra is one of the quickest sight-reading orchestras in the world. It is all very professional and experienced in this field and I have had the honour and privilege to lead so many great movies in the recording studio together with all its members... films such as Suffragette, Philomena, The King's Speech, the Imitation Game, Monuments Men, Notting Hill and so many others. I enjoy recording challenging sound tracks and the master of them all is John Williams. There are many great film composers that I worked for but recording Star Wars and Harry Potter was incredibly thrilling, especially being conducted by John Williams himself."

Carmine with violinist Anne Sophie Mutter

For Carmine the most challenging composer he has played to date is Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst and his violin compositions. He does not really admit to having his favourite violin music, admitting that anything with a juicy tune will fit the bill, since there are too many to pick out from. When pressed for an answer however, he does mention Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. When asked which musician, group, band or composer he feels is most inspiring presently on the Maltese front, Carmine however has no hesitation: "Without showing any favouritism towards Classical Music, I think we can all agree that tenor Joseph Calleja is another great ambassador to our country. Malta has produced many other talents and we should be proud of who we are!"

The man who gave up a possible career to become an engineer and left Malta to embark on a musical career admits that his harshest critic is himself..."especially when I hear a recording of myself. Every note will be meticulously analysed, hated or enjoyed." Does he ever become nervous about performing? Will a new piece, a new venue or a new maestro create anxiety? "None of the three I think, but it could be any of the three as well. I think I would feel nervous if I feel uncomfortable with something or have had a bad experience once and would have to face that experience again, thinking negatively that whatever had made me nervous that time round might haunt me again the second time."

From his perspective on stage, his most formidable audience was present for a performance where he was accompanied by the LSO. "We were in Florida performing Paganini's Moto Perpetuo in front of 8,000 people. That was some pressure, as I had to prove to myself how fast I can play for four full minutes!  The maestro I enjoyed most? Valery Gergiev. And the maestro I would have liked playing for was Carlos Kleiber, who unfortunately passed away in 2004."

With Violinist Pinchas Zukerman

While on the topic, Carmine Lauri shares something of the challenges of playing in the lead of an international orchestra. "Every time I sit in the 'hot seat' is a huge responsibility combined with huge emotions of satisfaction and honour. Decisions have to be taken both in rehearsal and in concert as a leader is the middle person between the conductor and the other musicians. No need to mention that any violin solo ever written is played by the leader, and the hardest critics happen to be the rest of the orchestra. Not an easy task, but when it all goes well and successfully, there isn't a better feeling afterwards. It's a tough job as you're only as good as the last time, and I have to be always prepared and ready for any challenge."

Asked which orchestra he liked most to date, Carmine replies: "The Vienna Philharmonic will always remain the orchestra closest to heart. There are many reasons for this, starting from the New Year's concerts, the very first concerts I have probably ever watched and still do with eagerness every year and because it has a very unique sound and is stuck in its own traditions that never change. "

And so, the wooden spoons which his mother once used, have wielded their very own magic, contributing towards the creation of a musical genius. Do they still exist? "Yes indeed, they do. Every time I walk into my studio in my house in London, I am reminded of them as they hang proudly on my wall, thanks to my late father who had done such an amazing job of framing them for me. They are there to stay and bring up many memories of my past."

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