“Accept, Adapt and Change”: Jean Noël Attard on the Future of the MPO

Jean Noël Attard serves as Events and Marketing Manager for the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO), an ensemble which, like most cultural entities around the world, has seen its artistic activities halted and its established operational model disrupted since the appearance of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent introduction of governmental containment measures. For this edition of MyMAC, we speak to Jean Noël to discuss the changes wrought by the coronavirus outbreak, and the MPO’s vision for the future as they strive to remain active, engaging and relevant to audiences both established and new.

Jean Noël Attard, Events and Marketing Manager for the MPO

Jean Noël Attard, Events and Marketing Manager for the MPO

The last decade has witnessed an increased international presence of the MPO with an expansion of the orchestra’s activities both at home and overseas. In recent years the orchestra has regularly performed in concerts abroad including tours of the USA, Russia, China, Germany and Austria, activities which, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, have by necessity been unable to take place. Since then the MPO has worked to dramatically increase its presence online and has moved to expand its library of recorded content. As Jean Noël explains: “When the COVID-19 pandemic began, we started the process of releasing previous performances of the orchestra online. This was called ‘#MPOTuesdays’ - now creating new video productions."

“Accept, Adapt and Change”: Jean Noël Attard on the Future of the MPO

Recording at the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta, as part of the online endeavors taken up by the MPO. Credits: Darren Agius Photography

Aside from the opportunities presented by such an evolution in the MPO’s activities, there are nonetheless numerous accompanying challenges, not least including an internal reorganisation of the orchestra’s administrative focus in addition to the practical adaptations. Jean Noël describes how the role of certain departments within the orchestra’s administrative staff shifted as a result of the move to increasing online activity, with the operations and marketing teams’ role becoming more prominent as the hospitality and events departments’ work was hampered by the ongoing measures enacted to combat COVID-19.

COVID-19 forced us to essentially reinvent ourselves to a degree, as well as considering broader issues including sustainability, being a greener organisation — for example retiring the concert booklet and hosting it online instead — redesigning our website to make it more user-friendly and considering the development of an app. Our goal for the next three to five years is to be an important player in the film and video game industries and on streaming platforms.”

The shift to online presented numerous other challenges to the orchestra and its staff. Firstly, the resources required for the creation of new online content necessitated an essentially full-time technical team, something not previously required by the MPO. In addition to this, the creation of videos involved the hiring of an eight-person video crew, with directors specialising in classical music recordings hired from abroad to oversee the productions. An interesting point to note is how these changes impacted the role of the conductor in particular, the responsibility for shaping the sound of the orchestra necessarily moving to the producer of the recording. In January 2020, the MPO recorded Contemporary Colours with Palmer Records, featuring six compositions by active Maltese composers. While discussing this point, Jean Noël explains how the orchestra is also focusing on releasing recordings of works that “aren’t so readily available”, rather than committing to recordings of works by major composers that have already been recorded many times by other orchestras around the world, in essence aiming to avoid an already crowded marketplace.

When considering the challenges faced by the orchestra, it is crucial to discuss the effects on the individual musicians, both personal and professional as a result of the national lockdown. Firstly, for many members of the MPO the pandemic meant an extended period of time away from their friends and family, something which due to the inexorable link between one’s emotional state and their ability to communicate effectively through an artistic medium, presented an additional challenge when performing during this time. On a more immediate level, however, the move to video performances meant a change in how members of the orchestra approached their work, being forced to consider issues not previously necessarily faced. Jean Noël explains how the changes to the performance space altered the creative approach to concerts in the minds of the orchestra: “For the musicians, mentally it can be challenging to make the digital shift. Now we walk onstage, not to an audience, but to a camera. The question is how we react to this, how does this inspire and inform our creativity without the presence of a live audience. It’s like a sportsperson competing in an empty stadium.” Another important factor is the increased scrutiny that naturally leads from the content in question being able to be replayed multiple times, a situation that of course applies additional pressure to performers. As such, there is an even larger amount of preparation required, even with the lack of an audience impacting the atmosphere associated with live performance. “That’s the paradox.”

During the lockdown, the MPO conducted a series of video interviews with the members of the orchestra and its administrative staff, entitled ‘Musician Notes’. This programme of interviews aimed to assess the mood of the MPO and ensure its members were coping effectively with the significant changes to their life, including the lack of performance opportunities. The results of these interviews indicated a shared sense of missing the experience of live performance, and crucially, missing playing as an ensemble and the connections this profession provides.

If musicians are cut off from their family or other form of emotional and mental support, this may impact their ability to perform and therefore to inspire and communicate effectively.”

The impacts on personal wellbeing due to COVID-19 have of course been felt by people in a vast array of sectors in countries all around the world, with numerous public bodies across the globe reporting an increase in mental health issues and their associated impacts. While the artistic preferences of individuals may vary, it remains viable to assert that cultural engagement has a direct impact on mental health, the arts able to stimulate thinking and inspire engagement. Jean Noël is keen to emphasise this point, noting that, “Art has a value that isn’t just economical, it’s emotional. This is hard to assess economically, but it is a vital part of the economy. Aside from the economic benefits of those things, it also stimulates creative thought and cares for the health of the society. It’s a holistic thing. If we reduce art to an economic exercise, then we’re out. As a public-funded orchestra we have a special duty, especially now, to carry the torch of culture through these challenging times. Why would an investor commit resources to the arts at the moment, if viewed purely through an economic lens? We have to realise the other benefits and keep these in mind.”

“Accept, Adapt and Change”: Jean Noël Attard on the Future of the MPO

Recording for the series of online concerts being released by the MPO, here during a mini-residency at the Hilton. Credits: Darren Agius Photography

I enquire as to the morale of the orchestra, its members facing an uncertain future that has temporarily prevented them from practising their life’s profession. “Regarding the morale of the orchestra, of course there are challenges and adapting to these is difficult. However, there is also excitement. As a smaller orchestra we have a real opportunity to spearhead our adaptations from a creative standpoint, as well as from a technological and organisational perspective.”

With modern post-production technology, space for visual creativity in films is now almost limitless, with visual effects such as slow-motion and the inclusion of CGI now an affordable possibility for smaller production companies. I ask Jean Noël whether the MPO is considering incorporating elements such as these, and how he views the possibilities afforded by these ever-expanding technologies: “Yes, now through post-production the medium allows us to integrate a lot of things, and I think that we have a real opportunity to transform classical music from being viewed as historic and traditional, into the most contemporary-looking it ever has.” Indeed, even embracing a moderate level of production effects and choreography would most likely cause additional impact due to their relative originality in the industry, signalling a refreshing new direction for a genre of music at times accused of being unwilling to change.

The reality is that if we are going to continue to work towards our objective of increasing our relevance, reach and viability, we have to think more broadly and not take anything for granted. We have to be inventive and innovative as we move forward.”

Since the MPO’s increasing of its online presence, it has benefitted from a vastly improved social media reach and an increased awareness of its possibilities for innovation and growth. “We are already feeling the difference. In 2020, we reached over 11 million people on digital platforms. As we know from social media, you can’t afford to be silent, people will feel prompted to look for alternatives. This means we have to be present and remain on people’s radar. This can pose an issue as our core audience is generally more accustomed to television and print media, meaning we need to stay relevant to them whilst still seeking to engage a younger audience more used to online media.” Jean Noël explains further that due to their relatively smaller size in the market, the MPO is well suited to weather this storm, being more nimble and able to react to unexpected changes. Ultimately, however, it is clear to Jean Noël and his colleagues at the MPO that online content can never, and should never, replace live performance. “Whatever we do online will never replace a live performance. Our online presence, our desire to strategically position ourselves online, it does help our visibility and engagement with people. But in reality, in terms of the experience, nothing can replace live performance.” Instead, Jean Noël sees online content as being paired with live performance including releasing recordings of MPO concerts on a live label, whilst improving awareness of and access to classical music. “We see our online content acting almost like teasers. For those people who might not have been aware of the work of the MPO, now they are being made aware of us through our social media and other online content. Even if they only hear a few seconds of us today, another few seconds tomorrow and so on, we hope this might encourage them to attend our concerts in the future.”

“Accept, Adapt and Change”: Jean Noël Attard on the Future of the MPO

A round-up of statistics resulting from the MPO's digital transformation. Credits: Mario Abela

Counter-intuitively, it may be that the COVID-19 pandemic proves to provide unexpected benefits to the orchestra in the long term, essentially having forced the issue all organisations face of how to remain relevant over time. “For any entity operating in any sector, the key is to fuse together short, medium and long-term goals. The long-term goals might be in many ways the easiest, we know where we want to go. But for the medium and short-term ones it’s clear that to support projects involving a group as large as the MPO, many logistical concerns — often which require significant planning in advance — are far more difficult in a constantly shifting landscape.”

As we end our discussion, Jean Noël offers words of optimism for the future success of the MPO, despite it facing its greatest challenge to date. It is clear he remains positive about the increasing relevance of the orchestra despite the challenges it now faces, and is keen to see the MPO return to the concert hall and the music-making it values so much. “I think that when we look back at this, we will appreciate this moment in time. We are in a unique position to be able to determine the course of the future, and the arts have an important role to play in helping to inspire this change, ensuring it is a positive and sustainable one.” Speaking of his own passion to see the orchestra perform again, Jean Noël says: “When you hear that full orchestral sound again, it’s an emotional moment, a special moment, and it gives people hope that there is hope for life. This provides a lot of things indirectly to people, and I strongly believe our duty is to inspire motivation and positivity as best we can.”

For further information about the MPO and its activities, please visit the website or follow them on Facebook or Instagram.




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