Bernice Sammut Attard: “I Couldn’t Believe Konstantin Ishkhanov Brought Grigory Sokolov To Malta!”
Ever since competing in the 2018 Eurovision Young Musicians Competition, Bernice Sammut Attard has gone from strength to strength, quickly emerging as one of Malta’s top young talents. We sat down with her to learn about her experience of the competition and the concerts she has undertaken in its aftermath, as well as the projects she has planned for the upcoming year.
Maltese-born Bernice Sammut Attard began studying both violin and piano from a very young age, with Marcelline Agius and Karen Briscoe respectively. At the age of 16 she left Malta, becoming the first Maltese person to attend the prestigious Manchester Chetham School of Music, where she studied piano and violin as a joint principal study with Duncan Glenday and Ruth Hahn respectively.
In 2017, Sammut Attard was a finalist in the Chetham’s Bösendorfer competition, and went on to be awarded the second prize in the Malta International Music Competition. She also received an honourable mention in violin, and won both the joint third prize and joint best Maltese pianist in the Malta International Piano Competition.
Soon after, she rose to international prominence when she represented Malta in Edinburgh in the 2018 edition of the Eurovision Young Musicians contest, after winning the national edition of the competition.
Sammut Attard has performed in multiple countries including the UK, Poland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia, Armenia and Kazakhstan.
In 2019, the young pianist embarked on her first European tour, performing in Russia, Armenia, and Kazakhstan as part of the Days of Maltese Music tour organised by the European Foundation for Support of Culture.
Sammut Attard performed the Grieg Piano Concerto with a number of orchestras ‒ including the North Caucasus Orchestra, the Eurasian Symphony Orchestra, the Ryazan Symphony Orchestra and the Astrakhan Symphony of the Astrakhan Opera and Ballet Theatre ‒ collaborating with conductors like Alexei Galea Cavallazzi, Mikhail Kirchhoff, Sergey Oselkov and William Garfield Walker.
Sammut Attard is currently reading for a Bachelor of Music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow, studying with Fali Pavri.
Bernice Interview 🥰
We met up with this shining example of local talent to discuss her eventful musical journey so far, the impact of her forays into the world of professional musicians, and her plans for the future trajectory of her career.
Bernice, you have obviously been playing the piano for a number of years now, but what was it that initially attracted you to the instrument?
Well, from a very young age I always remember my mum playing the piano; she used to play on our piano at home piano, and I remember always wanting to copy the pieces that she was playing. She used to play Beethoven sonatas from this really old book, which really became my first inspiration I suppose.
And now you are studying at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow! How are you finding it? Has the Covid-19 pandemic affected things too badly?
Oh it’s amazing, it’s such a wonderful experience. Covid’s impacted things obviously, but I think they’ve managed to handle it quite well. They’ve split the week in two, with half being online lessons, and the other half being in-person with masks and social distancing and everything, but it all works well.
Your first really big event was your participation in the 2018 Eurovision Young Musicians competition. How did it feel to perform to an audience of potentially millions of people all around the European Union for the first time?
I don’t think I expected it to be such a wide audience to be honest. I mean I knew it would be broadcast internationally, but they only told us how widespread it is the day before. I was really nervous about it before I went out to perform, but then once I started playing I did not really think about it.
And how did you feel about the competition itself? Did you enjoy the experience of meeting so many fellow musicians from other countries?
Yeah, that was actually one of the nicest things about it because all of us were there. And especially after the competition, because then it didn’t really feel like a completion anymore, more like a meeting of people from different countries. And most of us have even managed to stay in touch, even to this day, which is really nice.
The competition has obviously had a huge impact on you, both on a personal level and as a piano player. Looking back, what do you think is the most significant manner in which it has affected you, personally and professionally?
I think it was the build-up to the competition that had the biggest effect on me. It changed everything. There were so many things that I hadn’t thought about before then, things like random interviews for example, and dealing with a ton of administrative stuff which a concert pianist probably has to deal with all the time in reality. This was all new to me and it was very interesting to experience it all for the first time. Apart from that I also got to experience the kind of long-term planning that I now know is normal in this world, because the competition took place in August, but we were working towards it all the way from May.
So for me it really was the best possible preparation for real life actually. I learned so many things that you really have to live through in order to truly understand, like having to be ready to alter a plan at the last minute for instance. Before it was always more or less up to me to choose a programme and then just do that, for example, but suddenly I realised that in real life there are so many people who have to have a say in it.
So did this experience put things in a fresh perspective for you? Did it make everything seem more ‘real’ perhaps, as opposed to when you were just playing the practice room?
Yes exactly. And it also happened to coincide with my departure from Chetham’s School of Music where I had been studying, and my admittance to the Conservatoire. So, I graduated, I moved locations, and now music became a real profession to me, and the competition compounded that feeling because it was a really big event, much bigger than anything I’d done before. It’s quite nerve-racking in a way but also one of the nicest things ever.
On the subject of Chetham, I understand you were the first person from Malta to ever study there. How did you find it? Did you enjoy your time there?
Oh yes! And actually I think it was the best thing to ever happen to me. If that hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t be here right now studying & pursuing music at this level.
In sixth forms, especially in Malta, it’s usually very difficult to be able to continue pursuing music at such an intense level. Chetham was really small and focused compared to my school back home, and more importantly it was a dedicated music school, because my school back home was just a normal academic school.
Speaking of Malta, do you think that at the moment Malta is lacking the educational infrastructure necessary to allow people to truly pursue a musical education in the way that you can at somewhere like Chetham for instance?
I think it is very hard to do so there. I don't really know what it is exactly, but it is very different. For example, Chetham was a place where opportunities were presenting themselves all the time. It was quite crazy when I think about it, so many things happening all the time. It’s like the place is a country of its own!
Right now at the Conservatoire you’re purely focused on the piano. What area of piano studies are you thinking of pursuing, and where would say you see yourself going in say three or five years from now?
To be honest, I’ve really been thinking about this, but I can’t say I’ve managed to come to a final decision yet. Right now I have a really good balance here. They teach, they do chamber music and solo work, and they never exclude anybody.
I might choose to focus on solo eventually, because that sort of leads everything, but I very much enjoy ensemble playing as well, and I really love playing with strings, probably partly due to my own experience playing the violin I suppose. I find it quite natural to play with the strings because I find it easy to understand them.
Recently, you have also had the experience of performing in front of the President of Malta. What did that experience mean to you?
I was actually with the Malta Youth Orchestra for that. There was a Maltese TV series about the President’s Palace where they dedicated about five minutes of each episode to showcasing local talent, and the MYO asked those of us who were studying abroad to come down and participate in it.
I even had the opportunity to meet the President himself while we were recording, which turned to be very motivational actually, because he was very interested and knowledgeable about what I was doing, and my plans for the future.
In 2019 you also had a series of international concerts in Armenia, Russia, and Kazakhstan, which were really your first proper tour of sorts in the capacity of solo recital. How was your experience of this event?
I’ve attended many music courses abroad, but the Days of Maltese Music tour was different and it was very, very nice. I had never been to a single one of the cities I travelled to, so each one was a new experience. I felt that they were all very different from each other, but every one of them had something really nice to offer.
And Armenia in particular… I really liked the food and the people there were so nice. Since it was the first destination, I think it probably had the biggest impact, since I didn’t really know what to expect. The language barrier was a bit challenging because I went with my mother but neither of us know how to speak Armenian or Russian so that was difficult at times.
The thing I’ve noticed most from doing all those concerts though is that I hadn’t realised before just how lucky I am to always have a piano available on which to practice. I didn’t really think about it before, but when I was there it was quite hard to plane when to practice every day, and of course, the language barrier made it even trickier.
With Russia being such a dominant country in the piano repertoire, did you feel any kind of extra pressure when you performed there?
No, not really. The thing that impressed me most about Russia was that the public is so cultured and passionate. The concert hall is practically always full; attending concerts is like this kind of thing that everyone does as if it’s the most normal thing in the world.
I think it’s a really cool thing, especially when you see old people and really young people all going to concerts together and enjoying them. I haven’t really experienced something like that anywhere else. It’s partly what makes performing in Russia so special, because you know that the audience all understand what is going on, it’s all so commonplace for them.
How important do you think it is for musicians to be supported and provided with opportunities like this tour, especially in the case of younger players like yourself who are at a point in their career where such support can be invaluable?
I think it is extremely essential, especially when you realise that the events being put by organisations like the European Foundation for Support of Culture and cultural entrepreneurs like Konstantin Ishkhanov aren’t just featuring the participation of younger players, but also the top artists in the world as well, so the support they provide is really across the board.
I also find it very inspiring because it feels like a path towards a potential future reality.
I remember I couldn’t even believe it when I first heard that Konstantin Ishkhanov was bringing Grigory Sokolov to Malta! I haven’t even heard of him performing in the UK, and then there I was, in Malta, casually going to one of his concerts.
It’s really cool and also a very inspiring experience, and I think it can be very motivational, especially for younger players who may have not yet turned professional, to see such artists performing live and potentially even getting the opportunity to meet them, instead of just watching YouTube videos.
Do you have any fixed plans for 2021? Any plans to return to Malta, or concerts booked perhaps?
At the moment I’m still planning, or trying to plan actually, because things are always changing because of the pandemic which is very frustrating, especially because I think I really need to plan things quite well this year. The hardest thing I’ve found is to actually set and keep deadlines, because if you don’t have a concert or a class coming up it’s very easy to get lost in a piece and just keep on practicing it without moving on from it.
Congrats Bernice! 🥳
It's always nice to see local talent shining on an international scale, and even nicer when the talent is so young and promising.