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A world-class pianist with a spirit to match

Charlene Farrugia on the difference between good and great musicians

Charlene Farrugia

Charlene Farrugia

Child prodigy and world-renowned pianist Charlene Farrugia, winner of the Best International Achievement Award at Il-Premju għall-Arti, eschews the posturing of divas, reaching for the sky in her music, but keeping her determined feet firmly on the ground. 

What drives her to excel in her field? Her answer surprises: “My values: family, friendship, tranquility, independence. They are the real reason why I do what I do on a daily basis.” But, after all, such self-effacement is in keeping with the way; in her speech at Il-Premju għall-Arti ceremony, she thanked Jesus for the artistic talent he had given her to share. 

Charlene fell in love with music and the piano at six years of age, thanks to a toy piano her older sister had shunned but which Charlene instantly grew attached to, actually waking up at night to play it. On her insistence, Charlene’s mother looked for a piano teacher, the choice of which was serendipitous. 

She had been teaching piano in Italy for 40 years and was just then returning to Malta to settle. Her name was Dolores Amodio, and Charlene blesses her for her open-mindedness and for nurturing what evolved into a passion, by playing recordings of great artists, taking her to concerts and master classes and preparing her for international contests and competitions. 

“Since then, my passion for music has been the driving force behind the hours of practice I do on a daily basis. Even playing the scales has become an exciting kind of research and a healthy mental discipline. The life of a musician is made up of many sacrifices,” she says matter-of-factly, recalling without regret that, after the last day of the scholastic year, while her friends began their summer holidays, she  would immerse herself completely in the piano. 

Among living pianists there are many who inspire Charlene. She loves the ‘exhilaration’ of Martha Argerich, her stature as a soloist, her great love of chamber music, her generosity in looking for new talent and in sharing music with other artists and with the public.  Still, she says she would give anything to travel in time and listen to the great pianists of the past: Chopin and Liszt, Thalberg, Alkan, Clara Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn.

She draws a neat distinction between a technically good musician and a brilliant one. “Great musicians know how to bring us closer to composers not generally considered to be sublime. On the other hand, there may be interpreters who succeed in making the greatest, most ingenious and interesting compositions unattainable, indigestible and distant”. The role of the performer, she insists, is in fact fundamental. It is better to listen to a composer who is perceived as “less great”, but is well played, than a much admired one, interpreted in a sloppy or inappropriate way.

The life of a musician is made up of many sacrifices

I ask her how it felt getting the Award for Best International Achievement this year, and she becomes emotional, saying that it made her finally feel appreciated in her own country.   Charlene continued to perform at concerts until she was about six months pregnant with five-month-old Antonio. “A few hours before my son was born, I was practicing intently on my piano at home. Needless to say, my son prefers the sound of the piano to that of any other musical instrument!” 

She feels strongly that music is fundamental for education.  But, teaching does not only involve passing on a tradition, it also involves “developing it through research, to make the heritage handed down available to new generations”.

Charlene is a committed member of the highly prestigious Euro Mediterranean Music Academy, (EMMA), a network of music institutions, universities and philanthropic foundations brought together in the shared interest of music and the promotion of peace in the Mediterranean and Middle East regions, bringing music to deprived areas.

Charlene’s CD Mediterranean, featuring the first Piano Concerto by Maltese national composer Charles Camilleri and recorded for Naxos, was launched as part of the celebrations associated with Valletta being the capital of European Culture in 2018 and has received rave reviews internationally.

Charlene’s grandfather played the piano alongside the late composer Charles Camilleri in the former’s Ħamrun home.  With her late father’s encouragement, Charlene got in touch with Charles: “It was a relief to find someone so passionate about everything Maltese, as I am myself, and who’d gone down such an impressive road”. They first met in 2000, right after her first performance as a soloist with the Malta National Orchestra and she loved his sense of humour, especially about music.

Charlene lives with her young family in Croatia, her husband Franko Bozac’s home country, and where she has been awarded a full-time post as piano professor at the Academy of Music in Pula. Future engagements include a recording of a newly-composed concerto for Parma recording company, as well as a number of concerts, most importantly, one with renowned violinist Anton Sorokow,  leader of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra with whom Charlene will be sharing the stage in the Czech Republic in June.

Charlene dreams of playing one day with her childhood idol, Martha Argerich.  “I would touch the sky with my finger if I were to be directed by the late Claudio Abbado or by the young but very intense Gustavo Dudamel. I would like to do a Lieder concert with Waltraud Meier or with Jonas Kaufmann, but what pianist wouldn’t want that?”

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