José Herrera: MPO Academy is “Right Equation” for Orchestra’s Future

Ever since its foundation in April 1968, the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO), then known as the Manoel Theatre Orchestra, has gone from strength to strength, growing rapidly over the past 50 years to become an internationally recognised institution with an ever-growing number of global tours and performances under its belt. In recent years alone the orchestra embarked upon its first-ever international tour of the USA, Austria and Germany in 2018, a Russian Tour in 2019, and the Malta International Music Festival and InClassica International Music Festival, both of which were held in 2021, with the latter also marking the first time that the orchestra ever performed in Dubai.

From left: Olga Pechkareva, Konstantin Ishkhanov, Hon. Justyne Caruana, Hon. Jose Herrera, Catherine Tabone, Sigmund Mifsud

From left: Olga Pechkareva, Konstantin Ishkhanov, Hon. Justyne Caruana, Hon. Jose Herrera, Catherine Tabone, Sigmund Mifsud Photo: © Kenneth Scicluna

However, in spite of the many incredible milestones that the orchestra has reached over the years, it has long been beset with one recurring issue – a relative lack of national representation within its ranks. Due to the absence of a dedicated framework providing aspiring Maltese musicians with a path to make their way to the orchestra, the MPO has often been forced to rely on foreign musicians to fill many of its seats as it struggled to balance national representation with maintaining the high standards required for it to perform at the level that audiences have now become accustomed to. This, however, looks to be coming to an end, with the MPO, in a press conference held at the Phoenicia hotel in Valletta on Wednesday 27th October, announcing the launch of the MPO Academy – an original music education initiative in Malta specifically targeted towards young talented musicians who wish to pursue a career as professional orchestral musicians. 


Chaired by MPO CEO Sigmund Mifsud, the conference opened with a short address by Mifsud himself, who explained that “the Academy is not going to be here to replace any other institution, it’s not going to be here to compete with any other music institution. The role of the Academy is here to help our young, talented and advanced musicians to specialise in orchestral playing. We have many talented musicians but so far there was no institution that specialises in helping our young musicians to focus on being a professional orchestral musician.”


Mifsud added that the Academy shall be kicking off with three full-time tutors – one focusing on violin, one on viola, and one on double bass – and seven part-time tutors who shall be selected from the ranks of the orchestra itself. 


“We have 20 students, and we will not be looking for more at the moment. We are not looking at having numbers but we are focusing on having a limited number of talented musicians to specialise in their instrument”, he said. 


José Herrera: MPO Academy is “Right Equation” for Orchestra’s FutureFrom left: Hon. Jose Herrera, Catherine Tabone, Sigmund Mifsud


MPO Chairman Catherine Tabone elaborated further on Mifsud’s comments, noting that the MPO Academy “is not about quantity, it is about quality, so of course we are not aiming at having an excessively large number of students but it is an Academy that will be specialising in assisting musicians in training for classical performance. This is not something that to date they could do in Malta. Unfortunately, they had to go abroad to further their specialisation, so hopefully with this institution that we are launching in collaboration with the Ministry for Education, and thanks to our sponsors, the EUFSC, we are addressing this lacuna in music education that is present at the moment. This initiative is also intended to assist in bringing more numbers of Maltese musicians within the ranks of the MPO. This is one of the issues that the MPO faces on a regular basis and unfortunately it is due to an issue with specialisation of orchestral performance, which is something that requires particular training. You have to understand how to deal with other sections, how to prepare for auditions, and this academy is the institution that will take care of this issue”.


The Music Director of this new Academy shall be the acclaimed British conductor and professor Peter Stark, who currently occupies the role of Professor of Conducting at the Royal College of Music in London and Rehearsal Director of the European Union Youth Orchestra. The conductor joined the conference via video message, remarking that “I have found the musicians of this country to be both talented and passionate but there is work to be done. Maltese students deserve the very best home-provided tuition – techniques, understanding, communication, development of musical personality – but also awareness of the standards that exist elsewhere. Malta should be competing on an equal footing with the other countries of Europe. By creating this school we aspire to attract students from other countries because of the standard that is to be available here. This can only help Malta’s profile and standing as culture is one of the fundamental standards by which peoples and nations are judged.”


Stark’s participation in this project, as well as that of the three full-time tutors, has only been made possible due to the financial support of the European Foundation for Support of Culture (EUFSC), an international Malta-based cultural NGO that works to foster and promote cultural growth and appreciation throughout the world. The organisation has already been instrumental in supporting the MPO on many of its tours and performances over the past few years, and will now be teaming up with the national orchestra once more for this latest venture. EUFSC President Konstantin Ishkhanov, and Head of Marketing Olga Pechkareva, were both present at the conference, with the former noting that “this is a very exciting new venture for us. The MPO and the EUFSC have now been collaborating together for many years and we have achieved many excellent milestones for the orchestra together. Now, we are looking to take things to the next level and build a framework for the first time in Malta’s history for young Maltese musicians who wish to start on the path of becoming professional musicians. The MPO Academy will bring something new to Malta, which will help to further enrich Malta’s musical heritage, and provide an opportunity for all who wish to take on music as a serious career”.


José Herrera: MPO Academy is “Right Equation” for Orchestra’s Future

From left: Olga Pechkareva, Konstantin Ishkhanov, Hon. Justyne Caruana


On her part, Olga Pechkareva highlighted the educational credentials of the Academy, observing that this links well with the Foundation’s goal of expanding music education around the world. 


“This new initiative”, she said, “is the next natural step of our partnership, since it taps into one of the core missions of our Foundation - music education. This has always been one of the most important pillars of the EUFSC, and we are always on the lookout for new ways to foster talent and help to provide young musicians with the opportunity to fully develop their potential, which is why we jumped at Sigmund’s invitation for us to collaborate with the MPO on this project. The EUFSC constantly organises music academies and masterclasses, both here in Malta and all around the world, with the aim of bringing budding musicians in contact with some of the top artists of our time, but with the MPO Academy we are going a step further, since this will not be an academy of a few weeks, but a permanent, year-round institution which will provide Maltese musicians with all that they need to become professional performers. Our wish is to see Maltese students experiencing the same high level of music education as any found in the cultural centres of Europe or America, and our ultimate goal is to see professional musicians from the Maltese Islands who are at the same level as those from the Berlin Philharmonic or the London Symphony Orchestra. This will further push the level of the MPO and also increase Malta’s cultural standing on the international stage. As a consequence of this Academy I also hope that more students will be encouraged to choose music as their career path, since it will now be easier for them to see a future for themselves through music.”


The conference was also attended by the Ministers for Education, and Culture – Justyne Caruana and José Herrera respectively. Caruana pledged her Ministry’s assistance in ensuring that the Academy will be able to be in possession of all the necessary accreditations to make it an officially recognised educational institution, stating that “we are here to assist in whatever way possible to make sure that all accreditation can be in place”, and adding that “today is a very important milestone – the launching of this academy, which as has already been stated is not based on a matter of quantity, but us a qualitative exercise, an exercise for excellence. We are a small country but we do have talent and of course we have to nurture that talent. We have to provide opportunities and have to invest also in regards to orchestral playing and in this talent.”

Jose Herrera

Hon. Jose Herrera, Minister for the National Heritage, the Arts and Local Government

Herrera meanwhile, focused on the growing role which the MPO itself is taking on, even within the international community, declaring that “the orchestra now is becoming one of the diplomatic arms of the Ministry when it comes to cultural diplomacy. When you’re abroad and you’re travelling and you excel obviously you’re making a very strong cultural statement for the country, and I think this new scope that our orchestra has found is working very well. The orchestra now has a level of experience and is starting to compete on par with similar orchestras in Europe. I experienced this first-hand when I was privileged to attend a performance of the orchestra in Dubai; it was a great pleasure to have that experience. I have to thank in particular today the EUFSC which is a Foundation which promotes culture on a big scale in Europe, because were it not for such foundations it would be difficult for the MPO to have had such an experience.”


Herrera also commended the management of the MPO, and their decision to launch such an Academy, as he pondered on the positive impact that this can have on the orchestra’s future:


“I’m very pleased at the way the orchestra is being handled and managed”, he said “and we’re seeing it grow which is good because Malta deserves to have the best. When it comes to musicality it’s true that one of my preoccupations has always been that out of the 80 or 90 professional musicians that are engaged with the orchestra there aren’t enough Maltese, and I had asked Sigmund to try to see how we can address this issue. It couldn’t be by lowering the standards, because as Sigmund explained to me, if you lower the standards just to accommodate, you will devalue the prestige of our orchestra, which is not what we want after all these years of investment in our national orchestra and after seeing our orchestra grow so much and becoming what it is today. I reluctantly agreed with him because the idea was to include as many Maltese musicians as possible. But now I think the right equation has been found because with this specialised academy students will be directed for the orchestra, they will be studying to become a player in an orchestra, which will therefore gradually lead to us having more Maltese within our orchestra. Obviously when you have an academy of this level being launched, the end result will be more professional orchestral players and you will finally have an orchestra which will have a substantial amount of Maltese but which will also be at the level of these grand orchestras we find all over Europe.”


José Herrera: MPO Academy is “Right Equation” for Orchestra’s Future

To keep updated about new details regarding the MPO Academy, please visit the MPOs official website here.


Konstantin Ishkhanov EUFSC European Foundation for Suppport of Culture MPO Jose Herrera

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