Orchestral Manoeuvres: How Tiny Malta Created an Internationally Renowned Philharmonic

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Violin player of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra during a live performance – photo: Matthew Grech, courtesy of the MPO

With a population of less than half a million, Malta packs a musical punch well above its weight.

Malta has been the birthplace of many acclaimed composers, including Nicolò Isouard (1773-1818), Francesco Azopardi (1748-1809), and more recently, Carmelo Pace (1909-1993) and Charles Camilleri (1931-2009), whose prolific and diverse output included everything from piano music to operas and film scores. Today, local luminaries include the composer Ruben Zahra, who combines Maltese and Mediterranean folk with classical, rock and jazz influences, and Joseph Calleja, one of the world’s leading tenors, often compared to past giants like Jussi Björling and Enrico Caruso.

Malta’s unique musical culture reflects its rich history. Italian flamboyance and Arabic melancholy infuse local folk music, in particular the ancient local tradition of Għana, a sung lament. Echoes of church music and of military bands weave in and out of classical works by local composers, a reminder of Malta’s history as home to the Knights of St John and, later, a British colony and military base.

The MPO’s répertoire of representations includes novel formats such Rockestra – photo: Matthew Grech, courtesy of the MPO

Malta’s musical identity now is the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, whose 10th anniversary next year coincides with the Maltese capital, Valletta, becoming the European Capital of Culture.

Sigmund Mifsud, Executive Chairman, explains the Maltese passion for music and the role the orchestra plays in the islands’ story.

Can you tell us a bit about Malta’s relationship with music? How does such a small country manage to produce so much musical talent?

As Maltese we are very passionate about whatever we do. We have this Mediterranean culture and we are also influenced by other countries; the Italians, and, in the past, the British… We are very loud and music is a way of expressing ourselves.

Malta seems to invest a lot in musical education. What is the orchestra’s role in this process?

The School of Music of Malta is free for everyone. It was originally created for people whose parents couldn’t afford to pay for lessons. Many parents take their children there now and there are many good teachers. At the Malta Philharmonic we are helping develop the Youth Orchestra. Three years ago we started the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra Academy to help develop the best talent. Our internship programme some work within the administration. When possible we organise master classes led by our lead musicians and international soloists to help our musicians develop.

What was your background prior to becoming Chair of the Malta Philharmonic?

I used to play the trumpet with the orchestra. I also did musical arrangements and organised concerts for big bands and full orchestras, which helped shape my vision of how things can develop. Now Malta has three local big bands that are very busy all year round doing functions, playing at weddings, playing on TV programmes. I have always encouraged live music in any form and it’s gaining a lot of popularity here.

You’re not afraid to mix musical genres, with projects like The National Orchestra goes Pop and the Rockestra. Where do such projects lead?

The original idea came when I was playing in the [chamber] orchestra 18, 20 years ago. At the time, the orchestra wasn’t very popular; attendance was poor and we only did one, sometimes two, concerts a month. I thought we could make it more popular by doing popular music. So we did The National Orchestra Goes Pop—which after five years developed into Rockestra, done under the patronage of the president of Malta— involving pop singers, introducing the orchestra to a broader audience and involving new sponsors.

The orchestra’s main role is to play classical music, but it’s good to diverge into different genres. We only have one professional orchestra in Malta, so I always thought it should reach the community in different ways. Nowadays I’m very proud to say that the orchestra is very much in demand. From having 1-2 concerts a month the orchestra now has 1-2 concerts a week. As long as it’s good music, there’s room for everything, in my opinion.

Malta has a rich tradition of international exchange in musical talent. How do these connections nourish the local music scene?

We have invested a lot in getting foreign artists, such as conductors, to collaborate with us; we believe it’s very important. Every conductor brings his own knowledge and experience during the weeks that he works with the musicians and this is very healthy for the orchestra. But we also export our talent. We have a five-member wind ensemble from the orchestra that has been playing abroad in Germany, Vienna and elsewhere for the last five years.

Before I was appointed chairman four years ago, the orchestra hadn’t travelled for five years. Two months after my appointment, I signed a contract for our orchestra to do a China tour with eight concerts. We went to Milan for the Expo Milan. We played at the Alte Oper in Frankfurt, we played at the Musikverein in Vienna, we played in Rome… And we have other plans for next season when we will tour five countries. It’s important for our orchestra to play at the international level.

Inviting experienced conductors has helped the MPO to develop its talents – photo: Matthew Grech, courtesy of the MPO Who are some of the outstanding local

Who are some of the outstanding local musicians currently involved in the Malta Philharmonic?

First and foremost is Carmine Lauri. He is the co-principal of the London Symphony Orchestra. We invite him every year, sometimes to lead the orchestra, sometimes as a soloist. Recently we commissioned a recording with a local musician, Etienne Cutaja. Cutaja was the co-principal of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. After an amazing career there, he has returned to Malta and is leading our horn section. Obviously he’s used to certain standards and he influences our musicians in a positive way. Having these musicians back home and starting to teach, that helps our development.

What are your ambitions?

My vision is to keep strengthening the orchestra’s professional identity. I want young musicians to look up to our senior musicians and think, “I want to be one of them, I want to be part of the orchestra.” I want to get a proper concert hall; right now we are ‘homeless’. We are collaborating with a private investor so that we will have our first recording studio that can accommodate a full symphony orchestra. I would like to see a proper academy so the orchestra can keep on growing. I want to build the youth orchestra, and create a children’s orchestra for under-12s. I want to show what an interesting and creative profession this is; that being a musician is something to be envied.

Malta’s cultural sphere of influence is impressive for such a small island. Yet, the nation puts an emphasis on this soft power element, from visual arts to music through to literature, thanks to the National Library’s new CEO.

For more on how to best discover Malta’s treasures, follow the recommendations of InterContinental Malta’s Concierges.

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