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Classical guitarist shows his roots

Simon Schembri. Photo: Gino Galea

Simon Schembri. Photo: Gino Galea

Natasha Singh talks to classical guitarist Simon Schembri about his latest collaboration with Paris-based Quatuor Parisii – a collection of original classical compositions with a local flavour.

Waiting in the cool, beautifully decorated courtyard of the Xara Palace in Mdina, I couldn’t help but think what an apt setting it was for an interview with a classical musician. The baroque architecture, the quiet, peaceful stillness – it seemed like the place alone could inspire a melody.

Simon Schembri is a musical artist in every sense of the word. From the French lilt in his accent, to the long rounded shape of his fingernails (a tell-tale sign of a guitarist), and the way his face lit up as he spoke about his music. His guitar accompanied us throughout the interview (albeit, preferring to speak in silence) as he told me his story.

When Simon was a mere six and a half years of age, he was asked by Carmelo Schembri (the conductor of the national orchestra at the time) if he would like to learn how to play music. Simon’s grandfather clearly had music in his blood, as he was proficient at playing the banjo and the mandolin, as well as the guitar. After having watched his grandfather play music with his friends on weekends, Simon knew exactly which instrument he wanted to learn.

“The guitar was a very popular instrument during the late seventies in Malta. Even if you think about the għanja Maltija, the main instrument is always the guitar. I feel that the guitar was, and perhaps still is, the root instrument in Malta, because we have a sort of Spanish – if not influence – then a Spanish love in Malta, an attraction – even flamenco is so popular in Malta. We have flamenco in France of course, but it isn’t as popular as here in Malta. The classical guitar, paired with the Semitic vocals and melody of the Maltese language, produces the unique harmony that is the għanja Maltija. So the guitar, for me, was always a root instrument within Maltese culture.”

The album clearly showcases Simon and the Quartet’s virtuosity

Simon not only learned to play the guitar – but mastered it. From the tender age of nine, he was performing at the Manoel Theatre and still has a soft spot in his heart for the place. He was chosen to be an apprentice with Master Alexandre Lagoya at the Conservatoire de Paris at the age of fifteen after winning first prize at a competition, and eventually established a long-term friendship with the Master. Simon went on to become an international competition laureate, performing in countries all around the world, and winning the Malta Classical Music Award.

However, he never forgot his roots, returning regularly to Malta from France, performing at many public events, such as The Valletta Baroque Festival, as well as his beloved Manoel Theatre – where the story of his latest collaboration with the Quator Parisii starts.

In December 2014, Simon was asked to perform for a private event celebrating MSV Life’s 20th anniversary. Simon tells me that MSV Life CEO David Curmi had always been a huge fan of classical art, especially when it came to music, and thus the evening consisted of a performance of Spanish music featuring Simon, along with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. The performance was very well received by the audience, which consisted of directors, clients and business partners whom MSV Life had invited from all around Europe.

One among them, an Austrian reinsurance executive, had travelled to Malta specifically for the event. He also happened to be a connoisseur of classical music, with close ties to the Vienna-based record label company Gramola, who had been producing classical albums since 1924.

Simon’s performance impressed him to no end, and a year later, Simon recorded a series of significant guitar pieces together with Paris based Quatuor Parisii (or Parisii Quartet), a group formed in 1981 by four students from the Conservatoire de Paris.

Given the immense difficulty that most musical artists face when looking to release recordings on an international label, a fortunate stroke of fate caused this Austrian executive to get in touch with Simon, who sent off some sample recordings of himself playing, together with the Quartet, to Gramola Records. Impressed by what they heard, they agreed to produce a CD, which was sponsored by MSV Life. Simon professes his gratitude towards the company: “I’m very happy with the relations with MSV Life, because they are really supporting not only this project, but classical art and music in general.”

Simon tells me that all the recordings on the CD album are original compositions, one of which was written by his friend Eric Marcelli. The album clearly showcases Simon and the Quartet’s virtuosity, accompanied by contrasting emotions from three periods in three differing styles.

The CD album, titled The Maltese Touch, will be available in Malta in approximately three weeks’ time. The album is also set to be distributed around Europe, including France and Germany.

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