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All things beginning with an M

Musician Michelle Castelletti talks to Alex Vella Gregory about being part of one of the most exciting musical cities in Europe.

Michelle Castelletti

Michelle Castelletti

Manchester. England’s second largest city is home to quite a few celebrities, such as Lang Lang, Andras Schiff, Midori, Joanna McGregor, and many more. Most of you are probably wondering whether they play with City or United. Well, they play for a far bigger Manchester club, the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), which also boasts our very own Michelle Castelletti as part of its team.

Alas, the football team analogy does not go very far. Those who are not musically inclined would probably lose interest by now, which is a great pity indeed. At the cost of sounding patriotic, we should be proud of having a Maltese woman as the artistic director at Manchester’s RNCM, just as Castelletti herself is proud of her achievements.

Of course, anyone who manages to get such a musically prestigious position is to be congratulated, regardless of gender or nationality. The RNCM is one of the UK’s top music colleges, and definitely a match for the traditionally dominant London colleges.

And from a more local point of view, in a country where the classical arts are still looked upon with suspicion and incomprehension by a large segment of the population, it is great to have another point of reference on the global music stage.

The best thing about Michelle is that, despite all of this, she is still deeply attached to Malta, and fondly remembers all her musical experiences over here. She produces a very long list of names and groups she has worked with, a list too long to mention here.

There are some who, I feel, deserve a mention. The first is Bice Ciappara, who singled out Castelletti when she was still young for her musicality, and took her under her wing. The other is Brian Cefai, with whom she would become the co-director of the Amadeus Chamber Choir, thereby gaining her first experiences as a conductor.

Castelletti’s desire to further her conducting skills led her to follow a Master’s in Music in Conducting, with composition as a second study, at Canterbury Christ Church University. This was made possible through a grant from the Maltese government, as well as the kind support of Janatha Stubbs, who believed in her. Her stay in Canterbury would last much longer than planned, and she went on to do her PhD in conducting and orchestration following the award of a grant under Strategic Educational Pathways Scholarship Scheme.

While in Canterbury, Castelletti took care of the Sounds New Contemporary Music Festival. “My biggest satisfaction was the International Composer Pyramid. Over three years we had 1,400 submissions from 49 countries. We spent weeks going through scores. The sad thing is we had to choose 12 a year.”

She was given access to Mahler’s own sketches, and reconstructed a version for chamber orchestra

Her doctoral research centered around Mahler’s unfinished Symphony No. 10. She was given access to Mahler’s own sketches, and reconstructed a version for chamber orchestra. Mahler symphonies for chamber orchestra? Sounds like a contradiction in terms.

“Well, actually there was quite a tradition in late 19th-century Vienna for chamber reductions of big orchestral works, including works by Bruckner and Debussy. It made these big works more accessible. I am very pleased that my reconstruction has aroused a lot of interest, and it has already been performed quite a few times.”

With all this invaluable musical baggage, Castelletti has now moved to Manchester, where she has taken on the new role of artistic director. This role will definitely prove to be her biggest challenge to date, but she is very excited about it, not least because she gets to meet all the big artists of the moment, and nurture the talents of the future.

The RNCM creates some 465 events a year, from big concerts to workshops and master-classes with musicians and composers. Among the artists who have left a great impact on her, there are composers such as Arvo Pärt, John Tavener (who passed away recently), George Crumb and Krzysztof Penderecki.

With all of these encounters and experiences, I wonder what has left the greatest impact on her. Castelletti finds it difficult to pinpoint anything specifically, and she apologetically answers that she does not want to leave anyone out, given that she has worked with so many great musicians.

So, I ask her, what makes someone great? “The greatest people are the humblest people,” she replies. “No matter what they achieve, they remain humble.”

I conclude by asking her about any future projects, or things she would like to work on. “I would like to do more work with people with cancer. I have lost my very precious niece to cancer, and I do hope to be able to find a way to enrich saddened people’s lives through music.”

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