Getting geared up for Gershwin

Photo Darrin Zammit Lupi

This year’s edition of the Malta Arts Festival comes to an end with the well-loved Porgy & Bess, which world-renowned conductor Wayne Marshall will perform together with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. He discusses American opera, Mascioni organs and our thriving music scene. An edited version of this interview appeared on The Sunday Times of Malta.


The sun is reflecting beautifully off the Marsa Sports Club pool and everyone around us is in holiday mode, but we are discussing the finer points of American music – more specifically George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess.

Or rather, the world-famous conductor Wayne Marshall – who, incidentally, has just been appointed artistic director for Valletta’s bid for the title of European Capital of Culture – is explaining to me what makes this piece of music, arguably Gershwin’s most popular, the masterpiece that it is. More than 70 years after Porgy & Bess was premiered it continues to be a favourite with opera lovers, offering a more modern take on a genre that is not typically associated with 20th-century issues.

Marshall will be closing this year’s edition of the Malta Arts Festival with this favourite, which he explains is the very first opera he conducted.

“ I’ve performed it so often that it’s become part of me. It’s also the kind of work that is fun to direct on stage, which I have done. Many numbers from Porgy & Bess are now considered classics, household songs that are hummed casually.

“There are so many to mention, from Summertime to I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’, My Man’s Gone Now… Everyone loves them and this popularity has maybe led people to think of Gershwin’s work more as a musical than opera. However, the structure of the music is undeniably opera – an opera that I’m really looking forward to conducting with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra in Malta,” he said.

Marshall’s name is inextricably tied both to Malta and to the Malta Arts Festival. Married to celebrated pianist Jennifer Micallef, Marshall is a familiar sight in Valletta, where he lives together with his wife and his daughter Martina when he is on the island. His playing (he is also a renowned organist) is an equally familiar sound in our capital, particularly at the parish church of St Augustine where he can be found playing the organ during Sunday evening mass.

“I love playing on that organ, particularly since it’s been so ably restored by Robert Buhagiar. The organ is a Mascioni and it’s a very fine specimen. But it’s more than just playing the organ for me. I enjoy being part of the Valletta community and I have to say that Fr Ray, the parish priest at St Augustine’s, is doing some amazing things within the parish. The Sunday evening mass is a pretty special affair; it’s the sort of function where everyone takes part.”

Much as I love our country, I confess to being slightly surprised by this statement. The man has travelled – and performed – across the world, in some of the most prestigious locations. Realistically speaking, not many in his position would be content to spend whatever free time they have living in such a small, albeit gloriously unique, city. When I point this out, his reply is immediate:

“Put it this way. I just came back from a performance in Frankfurt, where the weather was atrocious, pretty much freezing. I haven’t enjoyed the sun in ages.”

He looks around him, gesturing at the cloudless sky.

“It’s difficult not to enjoy this. I suppose I discovered Malta when I met Jennifer, who is one of the artistic directors for the Cayman Music Festival. We both wanted to keep close contact with the island and that’s why we bought a house in Valletta. I’m enjoying every aspect of living there and I’m also excited at coming back to the Malta Arts Festival.”

This will be Marshall’s third time performing at the festival. Last year he directed the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra through a rousing festival finale that included Maurice Ravel’s Bolero and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

The year before that, his opening concert featured an all-American bill that included Gershwin and Bernstein. This year, besides what promises to be an equally spectacular closing on July 18 with Porgy & Bess, he will also be giving an organ recital on July 15 on the Mascioni organ at St Augustine’s.

Talk drifts back to Valletta. He tells me that he is impressed by the influx of events that are happening not only as part of the festival, but also beyond.

“From a musical perspective, the scene is alive and there is a lot happening. The national orchestra is extremely active and there are many other musicians who organise a constant stream of high-quality events. I feel very comfortable with the arts scene here and in a way the place reminds me a bit of my childhood. There’s a certain sense of nostalgia.”

Marshall is full of praise for the team behind the Malta Arts Festival, saying that it’s easy to see that the organisers are very aware of what is happening on the artistic scene worldwide.

“This kind of awareness is very important; it’s what puts the festival on par with other international offerings. Malta has the added advantage of some spectacular locations; your churches, your gardens, your outdoor spaces… they all provide a beautiful backdrop for an artistic production and this is what sets the Malta festival apart from others.”

I turn the topic to the organ recital at St Augustine’s, which is being held to officially inaugurate the instrument’s recent restoration. According to the programme, the recital will also include an improvised session. Just how improvised will it be?

“Yes, this sort of thing is very common abroad. I will ask members of the audience to put forth a selection of themes on the spot and I will perform music that is related to the chosen themes,” he said.

“After all, what better way to interact with the audience than by noting their requests?”

Wayne Marshall will be holding an organ recital next Sunday at the parish church of St Augustine, Valletta, at 9 p.m. Porgy & Bess will be performed together with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Valletta, on July 18 at 9 p.m.