Sigmund Mifsud on the MPO: Weathering the Pandemic and Planning Ahead
Founded in April 1968, the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) is the archipelago’s flagship musical ensemble. The MPO strives to offer a yearly programme that averages more than one performance per week including symphonic concerts, opera productions, educational initiatives and various other projects. MyMAC caught up with Sigmund Mifsud, Executive Chairman of the MPO, to discuss the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and how the MPO is planning for the new future of symphonic orchestras.
Sigmund Mifsud, the MPO's Executive Chairman enjoyed a long career as a session musician with various orchestras in musical productions, television appearances and solo recitals. It has now been seven years since he retired his career as a trumpeter in exchange for garnering international visibility and popularity for the MPO. With the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent regulations brought into effect, the MPO has been forced to adapt to the so-called 'new norm', changing their current activities accordingly and preparing to usher in a new - and potentially very different - future for the orchestra.
“As we all know, COVID-19 came as a huge and unwelcome surprise to us all. Looking back to 2019, no one expected what the new year had in store. We had just closed the MPO's season with a tour in Russia in November 2019, and were preparing for our regular January concerts when everything had to be stopped. We found ourselves in a situation where we were forced to essentially reinvent ourselves. "
As for so many organizations operating in the arts and culture sectors around the world, Sigmund and his team at the MPO have been forced to investigate new ways of surviving and thriving in what has been the biggest challenge to their operations they have faced so far.
“ We began by re-strategising - by looking at new possibilities right away,” Sigmund begins. “Our first challenge was of course the fact that everyone was in quarantine due to the partial lockdown implemented in Malta. Our first tactic was to attempt recording our musicians individually from their own homes. Essentially, requesting home videos from our dispersed orchestra. Thankfully, once restrictions on group gatherings were eased, we were able to record in small ensembles. "
Recording at Teatru Manoel, Malta. Credit: Darren Agius Photography.
That being said, despite the lifting of some restrictions and the MPO being able to gather in ensembles, albeit reduced ones, Sigmund explains how they were also faced with yet another challenge: that of 'going digital'. “Once we found a solution, once we started gathering and working within smaller ensembles, we began our new journey of taking the MPO online. With the idea of going online, one opens the door to many new challenges that we as live performers wouldn't usually be necessarily faced with.
“We first began by researching the subject thoroughly, gathering insights into how best to present video content to accompany our audio performances. After all, it's one thing watching a performance during a live concert, but it's another when presenting a concert online, ”he explained.
Sigmund begins by walking me through the different dynamics of a live production and that of a pre-recorded production. “One main factor which is completely different when performing live is the size of your audience. When you're performing concert in halls, you're utilizing a platform that can accomodate, for example, up to one thousand audience members. Once a video is uploaded online however, we are automatically going international and increasing our visibility to potentially tens of thousands of viewers. "
For many industries, the shift from traditional to digital mediums may have been a smoother transition than for others. In regard to the performing arts and symphonic orchestras however, one must consider the challenge of best reaching audiences further afield. “What might work for a local market might not work for the international market as your audience is always different,” Sigmund elaborates. “Through the power of the internet, you are reaching out to a new and perhaps much larger audience, something that always needs to be considered.
“However, on the flip side, this can be seen as a great opportunity to reach a new and younger audience. If done correctly and delivered to a high standard, we can potentially educate and attract new listeners to classical music. It's one of the positive aspects that is driving us on our online journey. "
As temperatures in Malta rose and summer rolled in, government regulations appeared to have controlled and slowed the spread of the pandemic. With Malta's borders now open to visiting tourists and life restarting once again, the MPO was given the green light to restart their 2020 program.
“With guidance from the health authorities, our team saw some light after a very long and tough winter,” Sigmund begins. “Our original 2020 summer program was set to kick off with a special seasonal event: The APS Summer Festival. With everything seemingly under control we took the opportunity to move forward with the event, and, in the end, it turned out to be the only festival to successfully take place in Malta this summer! " Sigmund proudly announces.
However, with the potential threat of a second wave impacting the winter season, the MPO took it upon themselves to collaborate with different cultural entities from around the country. “As we all realize, larger productions such as festivals are not really financially viable at the moment - as was certainly the case then. As such, we decided to transform the festival by expanding it beyond classical music, collaborating with our fellow colleagues within the industry. ” Sigmund continues to explain how,“ local and mainstream bands were invited to participate, including popular groups Red Elektrik and Big Band Brothers. ”
The MPO performing with Red Electrick at the APS Summer Festival. Credit: Darren Agius Photography.
The APS Summer Festival gave the MPO an opportunity to help attract life back to Valletta's Waterfront. Although what might have seemed like a normal festival to the audience, Sigmund was quick to clarify that many changes were made behind the scenes. “Although we went ahead with our planned festival, we were of course guided by local authorities when incorporating all relevant COVID-19 guidelines in place at the time. These included ensuring social distancing was maintained even amongst the musicians themselves. We managed to balance having a minimum number of musicians on stage while utilizing visual effects to showcase the whole ensemble. "
As the eight week festival came to a close, the forecasted second wave of COVID-19 approached. As daily cases rose, Sigmund and his team were put in the unenviable position of having to cancel many pre-planned productions for the Autumn and Winter seasons.
“September is usually a very busy month for all of us at the MPO. However, we unfortunately found ourselves back in the situation we were in at the beginning of the year. After months of preparations, we ultimately had to cancel some of our biggest performances of the year. "
Sigmund continues to elaborate on the pre-planned productions which were only performed behind closed doors during rehearsals. “Our September concerts include our Joseph Callejja concert, which usually sees over 20,000 people in attendance. We had to cancel our yearly Rockestra performance, which is organized in aid of the Community Chest Fund, and we also had to cancel the Independence celebration concert unfortunately. "
As Sigmund discusses many of the concerts and productions which were unfortunately canceled, he mentions one production in particular which arguably would have been enjoyed by many: “We were approached by the Film Commissioner of Malta to commemorate the 10 year of the Academy Award winning movie, Gladiator , ”he explains with excitement. “We were planning to perform the film score live with the on-screen production, featuring an 80 piece choir and 80 piece orchestra. However, like all other concerts, this also had to be canceled. "
Upon being asked whether such productions have been postponed to a later date, Sigmund replies that the MPO will continue working on new and exciting collaborative projects, but that whether exact concerts such as those discussed will take place at a later date, or whether the orchestra will continue to look to new creative ventures, is yet to be determined.
What might have been a disheartening period for many turned into a unique opportunity for the MPO to focus on their musical training. Always the optimist, Sigmund explains how despite the struggles brought about by COVID-19, their team managed to find some positives.
“After September, we knew we needed to once again adapt in order to continue our symphonic journey despite the circumstances. We began working on an interesting project with our Principal Conductor, Sergey Smbatyan. ” With excitement back in Sigmund's voice he continues to explain that,“ for a usual project, Sergey would visit Malta for one to two weeks in order to work with our musicians, before continuing with his other musical commitments around the world. However, because of the travel restrictions in place, we were worried that our musicians would not be able to work hand-in-hand with their conductor as usual. "
“We were ever so grateful that after long discussions and a period of 15 days quarantining in Dubai, Sergey came to stay with us in Malta for eight weeks! When he did finally make it to Malta, we hit the ground running and got to work. We recorded some audio programs with Pharma Recording Studios and also some video concerts. "
MPO rehearsing with Sergey Smbatyan. Credit: Darren Agius Photography.
Sigmund is clearly thankful for such a unique - and fruitful - opportunity for the MPO to work with their Principal Conductor for an extended period of time. “It was a very positive experience and a great opportunity for us to not only discuss new ideas and structures, but also for the orchestra to develop and grow their communal chemistry. I think this was one of the main positive things that happened thanks to COVID-19. "
Sigmund describes how many in the orchestra have begun to view aspects of the musical industry in Malta through a new perspective. It became evident that there had been a significant shift regarding extracurricular activities in Maltese schools. With educational establishments implementing so-called 'bubble' strategies [the practice of considerably limiting class sizes], support for extracurricular classes, including musical education, was reduced. It was for this reason that the MPO embraced that time as an opportunity to assist and invest in musical education and awareness within Maltese schools.
The first project — Għanjiet tal-MIlied — features performances of various Christmas Carol favourites and offers the opportunity for students to sing with the MPO. Keen to innovate whilst providing a renewed focus on local traditions, Sigmund and his team have taken the decision to support Maltese heritage by performing all Christmas carols in Maltese. In Sigmund's words, "This is the perfect way to focus on our identity vis-à-vis our language."
As we reach the end of 2020, the MPO are planning ahead on the assumption that the current COVID-19 situation will likely remain as is. Sigmund goes so far as to suggest that the impact of the pandemic has the potential to change the dynamics of future orchestral productions in the long term, with the music industry possibly never fully returning to how things were in the past. “We have put a lot of effort into broadcasting our work online, something which I believe should now be an integral part of our strategy moving forward,” he elaborates.
Sigmund continues to explain the process of migrating from a digital medium back to live concerts when the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent containment measures eventually subside. He reminds me that, “for the musicians themselves, whether the concert is online or in a live setting, the same amount of - if not more - work is required for online distribution. Within the context of a live performance there is an element of allowance for human error. For pre-recorded concerts however, you simply cannot allow for any mistakes. "
Through their constant transformations and reinventions, the MPO has proven that to remain relevant, survive and indeed thrive, an orchestra must remain versatile and able to adapt to any situation. When asked about what lies ahead for 2021, Sigmund explains that, “the MPO will continue to focus on major classical online concerts, collaborations with local and international artists and educating our youth whilst also looking into further partnerships with film productions. We are constantly looking to the future for new challenges and opportunities, as we believe this to be the perfect time to make the MPO more relevant than ever, ”he states with enthusiasm.
As Sigmund guides me through the many productions and video concerts that the MPO will be releasing in the upcoming months, it is evident that the orchestra acts as a strong ambassador for classical music in Malta and overseas. “As an ensemble of musicians and most importantly as Malta's national orchestra, we need to be ready to adapt in order to continue providing music to our audiences. One thing in the future is certain: everything can change. "
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