Malta Philharmonic feud: Brian Schembri and Sigmund Mifsud clashed over contract

Long-standing disagreement between Maestro Schembri and MPO chairman Sigmund Mifsud culminated with Schembri’s no-show for closing season concert

Brian Schembri (right) and Sigmund Mifsud (left) with minister responsible for culture Owen Bonnici
Brian Schembri (right) and Sigmund Mifsud (left) with minister responsible for culture Owen Bonnici

A long-standing feud between the executive chairman of National Orchestra Limited, Sigmund Mifsud, and Maestro Brian Schembri, the principal conductor of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, has led to the termination of Schembri’s contract.

A source said the MPO’s management had accused the conductor of abandoning orchestra musicians when he refused to attend the season closing concert in June of Berlioz’s Carnaval Romain.

“This was one of several disagreements with Sigmund Mifsud… the management felt it could not tolerate a situation where the conductor refuses to attend a schedule event he is contractually obliged to attend. He also skipped a number of rehearsals,” the source said.

Disagreement between Mro Schembri, celebrated as one of Malta’s most brilliant musicians and the youngest ever to obtain the Royal Schools of Music’s licentiate, and Mifsud, had been ongoing for months.

Previously, Schembri’s lawyer Kris Borg had told The Times that Schembri had specifically travelled to Malta for the Carnaval Romain auditions. “It was the direction of the orchestra that did not respect the conditions of the contract,” Borg said, saying Schembri demanded compliance from MPO management before continuing with the auditions.

The end-of-season concert was eventually conducted by an Armenian conductor who was flown in purposely.

Sigmund Mifsud was unavailable for comment at the time of publication.

It was previously reported that Schembri had resisted changes in the conditions of his contract and was adamant that Mifsud – who is also the conductor for the MPO’s Rockestra performance – recognises that he was still the orchestra’s artistic director.

Mifsud is himself a former orchestra member, and was appointed executive chairman in 2013. He has contested the last two general elections on behalf of the Labour Party.

Joseph Calleja and conductor Brian Schembri at a concert in Frankfurt
Joseph Calleja and conductor Brian Schembri at a concert in Frankfurt

The termination of Schembri’s contract was met with concern by Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja.

“Whereas I am not privy to the other side of this sad story, I can definitely vouch for the fact that we don’t have artists like Brian Schembri growing on trees in Malta,” he said on Facebook.

“Brian is an accomplished musician and consummate artist with still a lot to give in our ever growing and dynamic musical scene. There is no denying the great work he has already achieved with the now excellent MPO and it would be a great big pity if a compromise to retain the Maestro’s services is not reached.”

A less diplomatic reaction that struck a stronger note came from Brikkuni frontman Mario Vella.

“A country of imbeciles, goats and bootlickers… one of our major exponents has been emarginated by a bunch of amateurs… Sigmund Mifsud appears to be more busy preserving Rockestra instead of keeping up the quality leap that the orchestra has enjoyed under Brian.”

Schembri himself announced the termination of his contract on his Facebook wall.

He said the “humiliating” decision was “unfair, abusive and, in my opinion, illegal.”

“Never in my life [have I] been treated so basely and disrespectfully by persons in authority who were supposed to support me in the job they themselves engaged me to do, that is to develop the orchestra to the levels that, by common consent, were hardly imaginable before,” he said, referring to the MPO board.

He said this was “a very painful moment in my professional life”.

“There is so much more that I had wished and planned to do to continue developing this orchestra into an artistically high-level professional ensemble. However, even if I have been so grossly and unceremoniously sacked by the national orchestra of my own dear country, nothing will ever change the fact that together with the musicians, I have succeeded in leaving the orchestra in a much better state than I had found it.”