Waving The Baton
Wayne Marshall has presence and enormous self confidence. He is a charismatic figure and he could seduce a chair. We met at The Phoenicia’s Palm Court. There he greeted me with a firm and welcoming handshake.
He offered me a drink straight away, put me at my ease and soon we were talking like two old friends. He is much in demand. ‘I spent most of my life conducting. I do not do solo piano as much as I do organ where I have a large repertoire. Conducting takes me to wonderful places – different places, different music. I never tire of it.’ He particularly enjoys the challenge of conducting from the piano.
This love of music did not just come from nowhere. He has a music gene and enjoyed a musical background since childhood. He was already playing by ear at the age of three and has perfect pitch. ‘I was watching what my mother was doing on the piano and imitating her. I wanted to sit and play piano all day.’ His initiation started early. ‘My father sang in the church choir and my mother played the piano.
The church was across the street from our house and every Sunday we followed the same ritual: Sunday mornings we sang in church, then it was Sunday lunch, church once again and Sunday school followed by tea. Easter Sunday was very special as we were taken to St Paul’s Cathedral.’ In fact, while much of his time has been devoted to Broadway and jazz music, Marshall began his career as a church musician, serving as organ scholar first at Manchester Cathedral, then at St George’s Chapel, Windsor.
Wayne Marshall was born in Oldham, Lancashire, on January 13,1961to parents originally from Barbados who arrived in Britain in 1958. Wayne began piano lessons at seven, ‘whenever my mother was free.’ He studied organ and piano from age 11 at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester from 1971 to 1979 and considers these to be his most formative years.
Wayne, already a star in the making, won a Foundation scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London and was a postgraduate student at Vienna’s Hochschule für Musik. He tells me that both his sisters are professional musicians. He spoke of his concern about young people. He has worked with young musicians, as well as a number of youth and conservatoire orchestras, which include the Cherubini Orchestra founded by Riccardo Muti. ‘The internet has killed the ability of some young people to conduct face to face conversation and to interact. Now we no longer have to go out as everything is available at home. Even teaching can be done on Skype.
’ He says even his seven-year-old daughter can already find her way around YouTube. Wayne is married to the well-known pianist Jennifer Micallef and they live in Malta with their two children. They first met at a festival back in 2004. Here he also met Glen Inanga who is Jennifer’s musical partner (The Micallef-Inanga Piano Duo who are reputed to be amongst the most outstanding piano partnerships in the world).
Wayne Marshall is a celebrated interpreter of Gershwin, Bernstein and other 20th century composers. Last year he played a leading role in the Bernstein centenary celebrations across the globe. When did he fall in love with American music, with Bernstein and the Gershwins? ‘I was eight when I heard Gershwin’s Piano Concerto for the first time. The music appealed to me and I realised that that is what I wanted to play.
’ He got hold of the score and performed it at school. He was fortunate when, in 1985, he was able to play the part of Jasbo Brown in the opera Porgy and Bess, working with Simon Rattle at Glyndebourne where one of his sisters was also given a part. He loved the experience so much that Porgy and Bess became a piece which he was to play often and, eventually, to conduct.
‘To answer your question: that is what started my love for American music.’ He says that it is his encounter with the virtuoso conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, which propelled him stratospherically. His homage to Gershwin includes two wellreceived CDs and in 1998 he was asked to conduct Porgy at the Proms. He insists that it is not a musical but an opera, a Black opera. ‘Gershwin went down to South Carolina to become acquainted with the styles of Black culture, which is church music and jazz.
In March this year he conducted the Orchestra de Paris in Paris in a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. He tells me that he considers himself very lucky that he can have a career in conducting along with playing. His merits have not gone unrecognised. He was the BBC’s Music Magazine’s Artist of The Year in 1998. In 2004 Wayne received an Honorary Doctorate from Bournemouth University and in 2010 became a Fellow of the Royal College of Music. When I asked him to comment on the music scene in Malta, he said that he loves working with our Philharmonic orchestra. ‘But it is such a pity.
that there is no proper concert hall for the orchestra. It needs a proper home. They deserve better. Until this happens we cannot invite big symphony orchestras. They also need better conductors and soloists,’ adding that he believes that Maestro Sigmund Mifsud is a good chairman. ‘I would also love to see a cultural centre,’ he notes thoughtfully, before adding with a smile, that perhaps the most important aspect of that would be proper parking facilities. Ta’Qali would be a good place, he believes. ‘A conservatoire would attract students from abroad.’
He has contributed in no small way to the local music scene. When he is in Malta he plays the organ at St Augustine in Valletta. Allow me to comment from personal experience: ‘wonderful.’ In his view, although there is a core of Maltese talent, we could produce more good musicians. ‘But talent needs guidance and it needs facilities,’ he says and he emphasises that it is also important to have musical education in schools. Wayne continues to enjoy a high-level global career and has been called ‘one of today’s most dynamic organ virtuosos.’ Blessed with innate talent, his versatility is impressive. He has developed a parallel career as conductor and is also in demand as a guest conductor. So, from playing the organ in London churches Wayne is now conducting world-class musicians in top opera houses around the world. My final question. How does he like living in Malta? ‘I love it. Malta’s great. The weather is lovely. I enjoy the heat, the sun and the people too. It suits me and my family and I believe we are fortunate to be here.’
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