Finding Harmony Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Interview with Riccardo Bianchi

While dust gathers in closed theatres around the globe, many performing ensembles have had to adapt in order to survive during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the halting of many performing arts, Malta’s National Choir KorMalta has successfully altered their repertoire and ensembles to continue their musical journey. MyMac sat down with Riccardo Bianchi, Artistic Director and Chorus Master of KorMalta, to learn about his experience so far and how he is leading the ensemble through COVID-19.

Riccardo Bianchi conducting KorMalta. Credit: Darren Agius.

Riccardo Bianchi conducting KorMalta. Credit: Darren Agius.

Riccardo Bianchi was appointed as Artistic Director and Chorus Master of KorMalta in December 2018, just one month after its inauguration by the Maltese Ministry for Justice, Culture and Local Government. The young Italian choir and orchestra conductor is currently also the Director of Orchestra Sacro Monte di Varese in Italy. 

Bianchi carried out his choral conducting studies at the Conservatorio “G. Verdi” in Turin under the guidance of Dario Tabbia, where he graduated in 2011. He then continued his studies in conducting at the Conservatorio “G. Tartini” in Trieste where he graduated under the guidance of Antonino Fogliani. Continuing his journey in higher education, Bianchi graduated with a post-Master's academic degree at the Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana in Lugano, Switzerland, furthering his conducting skills with a specific focus on contemporary music.

Throughout his career Bianchi has been awarded two Special Commendations, firstly at the London 2015 Conducting Competition winning Best Beethoven Performer, and in 2015 and 2016 being awarded with the Diploma di Merito in Choir Conducting and Poliphony from the Accademia Chigiana di Siena with Roberto Gabbiani.

We caught up with Riccardo to discuss his experience with KorMalta, how he strategically handles the COVID-19 pandemic and also what lies ahead for Malta’s National Choir:

Riccardo, you have an array of experience spanning from your home in Italy, to Russia and now here in Malta. Can you walk us through your musical journey growing up and what has helped bring you to where you are today?

Looking back at my childhood I fondly remember my father filling the house with popular melodies and also Bob Dylan classics. After lunch, in what seemed like his own private ritual, my father would sit with his guitar and begin playing so softly that he was barely perceptible. This may have been my first musical memory, which also instilled a personal philosophy that meant music was something intimate and also precious. 

Once I began to show interest in music, my grandmother taught me how to play the piano. Unlike my father, she saw music as an extroverted way of expression and fantasy. Their individual and personal approaches to music showed me that the Masters always have something different to teach about music. My personal musical journey has always been linked to the search for a Master who could showcase something new about music. This is why I owe my greatest compliments and appreciation to all of my Masters. 

However, if I could pinpoint one thing in particular which has also been an incredible fuel for my journey into music, that would be ‘The Maestro’.

You have been working with KorMalta for two years now. How has your experience with the choir been so far and do you have any experiences in particular that you would like to share?

If I could sum up what amazes me about this choir, is their desire to accept and triumph through the challenges laid out in front of them. I remember the first concert that introduced and launched KorMalta — which took months to prepare for. In the end we presented a crazy repertoire all a capella, from Renaissance to the present day, with double choir pieces, madrigals, motets, canons and having the choir spaced out throughout the church. 

After such an astonishing launch, I remember thinking to myself “This is the first concert, what more could we do to top it?” Since then, the choir has continuously managed to amaze me even further especially during our tour of Vienna, the opera at the Manoel Theatre, a production with The Malta Philharmonic Orchestra and our participating in the Valletta International Baroque Festival.

 

Riccardo Bianchi. Credit: Darren Agius

Riccardo Bianchi. Credit: Darren Agius.

 

How do you approach teaching and guiding the choir of KorMalta?

My approach as Artistic Director and Chorus Master has been shaped by my experience with the ChoirMaster of the Teatro alla Scala. Whilst studying there his philosophy was: “To be a leader you have to put yourself at the service of others; humility is an active gesture of wisdom”. Through his words I have learnt that at the end of the day, having respect towards others will allow you to overcome any challenge.

KorMalta handles both a capella, as well as symphonic repertoire with musical ensembles. Could you tell us the differences in preparing for both and perhaps some challenges that you have overcome?

More so than an orchestra, a choir must be ready to face different styles and different musical genres. We must remember that choral music has a spectrum of action that goes from pre-polyphony to atonal music, which is basically from the late Middle Ages to the present day...that is more than a thousand years of history!

That is why I believe that a choir excels according to how it handles repertoire given the individual stylistic properties. 

Addressing the differences between a choir and an orchestra is extremely different. This would be like comparing a Gregorian chant and Baroque music. However, we have put a lot on work and will continue to differentiate techniques between Marenzio and Monteverdi, or between Bellini and Donizetti.

...my first musical memory, which also instilled a personal philosophy that meant music was something intimate and also precious. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected many industries, in particular the creative economy and performing arts more widely. What changes and adaptations have you had to make with KorMalta?

Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed many — especially those in the arts industry — in a very tough situation. However as mentioned before, through humility and a sense of community within the choir we were able to adapt according to our circumstances. 

A lot of our performances earlier in 2020 were unfortunately postponed, until we as a group decided a way forward. This began with our rehearsing schedule. We decided to divide the choir into small, spaced out and outdoor rehearsing groups! Whilst outdoor solutions can be adopted for most activities, this is extremely hard for choirs due to the lack of acoustics, wind interference and many more factors. That being said, we found that the Greek amphitheatre of MCAST Mosta offered the perfect solution for us.  

We also took this opportunity to put our audience first. We adapted our mindset of asking the audience to come to our concerts, by allowing the choir to go to the audience. For this reason we held concerts in somewhat unusual places such as The Msida Bastion Historic Garden and Mnajdra Temples. 

However, with the temperature now dropping and the days getting shorter, outdoor rehearsals are no longer possible. For this reason we have worked on repertoire for small choral ensembles, which has allowed us to rehearse indoors keeping two and a half meters between each chorister. In fact, we are currently working on a project which will be held at the end of January. With a little bit of creativity, this production will feature all 50 choristers together!

 

KorMalta rehearsing at the MCAST outdoor Greek amphitheatre

KorMalta rehearsing at the MCAST outdoor Greek amphitheatre. Credit: Darren Agius.

 

KorMalta returned to live performance through the production of ‘United We Stand’, which was held in October. Can you tell us a little bit more about this?

The great thing about that concert was just going back to singing all together outdoors. It's a challenge for a choir to sing spaced out as you’re unable to hear one another, but the success was just doing it all together.

The production came after months of lockdown and gave us an opportunity to return to choral singing with a project that brought the choir back to its origins. Held at the outdoor Greek amphitheatre of MCAST, this also allowed us to celebrate the roots of the word ‘chorus’ — which actually came from Greek. The performance showcased repertoire from the Renaissance to the Contemporary era, all centered around the themes of dancing, singing, praying and celebrating together.

As with many other scheduled productions, your 2019/20 seasonal program had to be adapted according to COVID-19 health measures. Despite this, do you have a program planned for KorMalta’s 2020/21 season?

Of course, we have a full program planned for the season right up until July 2021. However, unlike our usual program announcement, we have decided to announce our concert one after the other. Each concert will have a touch of creativity allowing every project to be individually original, using a formula that I call, ‘Micro&Macro’. In essence, the proposals will be made from repertoire that can be performed with flexible staff in order for us to continue activities whilst adapting to any health restrictions brought about by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

In order to put the seasonal program together, I usually find pillars on which the season can stand and then in light of these principles, I try to imagine each individual project and concert. This year in particular will focus on synergy and collaboration between many different art forms. We will be collaborating with sculptors, painters, art historians, archeologists and even cooks! Despite all the restrictions COVID-19 has placed, we will continue to innovate our choir performances. 

We have also been receiving requests to broadcast our concerts, which we will be implementing in our upcoming concerts too!

 

KorMalta rehearsing outside. Credit: Darren Agius.

KorMalta rehearsing outside. Credit: Darren Agius.

 

What does the future hold for KorMalta and yourself as Artistic Director and Chorus Master?

The mission for the future is to propel the choir towards becoming a stable group of professional choir artists. In order to do so, we must continue to invest in our choristers by providing them with growing programs of professional development through masterclasses and through the study of the repertoire. 

At the same time I personally would like to create stable positions in the choir for professional and solo singers who can be voice leaders and section leaders. On top of this, it is also necessary to work on encouraging the new and younger generations, so that they can discover the study of choral singing as a possible professional choice.

With a vast educational background and a wealth of experience at such a young age, what do you personally think makes for an excellent director?

I have actually been asked this same question on my first day of academy for conductors! In the end, we students all replied with the same answer: “Just like any musician, the conductor must know his instrument, which can be the choir or the orchestra.”

After listening to our unanimous answer, The Master was quick to correct us. He explained that as conductors “we have no instrument, we work with people. Every person is an absolute value, which exceeds every other value in the world.”

That’s probably the secret to becoming an excellent conductor. But I am still on the road of my own journey, and still on the quest to continue learning.

 

To learn more about the activities of KorMalta, visit their Facebook page.

 

By Carla Formosa




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