Behind the Scenes at InClassica – Malta’s Biggest Classical Music Festival – with Konstantin Ishkhanov and Alan Chircop

Malta will host the tenth edition of InClassica International Music Festival, a celebration of excellence in classical music

Malta will host the tenth edition of InClassica International Music Festival, a celebration of excellence in classical music and an opportunity to attend over three weeks of consecutive daily concerts featuring some of the most respected and renowned artists and orchestras in the world today.

Organised by the European Foundation for Support of Culture (EUFSC) in collaboration with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO), the festival promises to be a unique and engaging event, and one that will further solidify the reputation of Malta as an international centre for artistic excellence.

Interview  795x435As we approach the six month mark before the festival’s opening, we take some time to have a chat with the festival’s Artistic Director, Alan Chircop, and the EUFSC’s President, Konstantin Ishkhanov.

Firstly, many thanks to both of you for taking the time to speak with us today. Alan, congratulations on holding the post of Artistic Director for the InClassica Malta International Music Festival 2021. If I might start by asking you about the approach you took when devising the programme of concerts for the Festival?

A: Thank you, I feel very honoured to be at the helm organising this festival with our wonderful team, a festival with a rare programme within the international festivals around the world. We shall be presenting a varied, vast, elaborate and intense programme of events, comprising 25 Concerts with seven different international orchestras, a grand piano recital by the legendary pianist Grigory Sokolov together with the final stage of the Classic Piano Malta International Piano Competition 2021, held in four rounds with a total prize fund of €300,000 and featuring all winners from 14 international competitions that we’ve organised around the world during the past two years. We’ve been enthusiastic and excited to put all this together ever since we started working on this festival in 2018. It is a very ambitious milestone and therefore we are very keen to see this through with great success.

Konstantin, congratulations on this being the tenth year of InClassica. How does it feel to be at this important milestone in the festival’s history?

K: In 2018, when Valletta was European Capital of Culture, we held what was said to have been an unprecedented international classical music festival and piano competition for Malta, both in terms of the number of concerts and events, and the number of world-renowned stars who had their Malta debut. InClassica 2021 will actually make the 2018 Festival, I dare say, look small.

This will not just be an important milestone in our festival’s history, but by far a very important and prestigious event and milestone in the history of festivals in Malta. I would also mention that InClassica 2021 will also feature the Malta Classical Music Academy, a three-week long educational event which invites some of the best professors from around the world to Malta for a series of masterclasses, lectures and performances. Educational work is very important to us at the EUFSC as we believe it vitally important to invest in the next generation of classical musicians and to ensure that quality music education is available to all students, no matter where they come from.

Alan, looking back to the first festival you were involved with as Artistic Director in 2014, can you tell us a little about the size of the festival then and how it compares to the upcoming festival in 2021?

A: In 2014 when the festival incorporated a series of master classes, daily concerts by the same professors, the students and invited guest artists – with an international ‘entourage’ of participants numbering around 150 from approximately 30 countries – seemed to us as an incredible feat. Every year, I would say the festival ‘doubled’ in size but also in prestige - in regard to the high calibre of artists who started featuring in the festival. As I said, in 2018 it was almost an unimaginable project and yet we succeeded with flying colours. Two years ago, when the ideas for 2021 were bounced around for the first time I thought it was a very ambitious, almost crazy idea. But knowing the willpower of our Foundation’s President, Konstantin Ishkhanov, and what we have managed to achieve especially throughout the past six years or so, I thought it was possible. In the end I thought, “let’s go for it!” Now that we are entering the final stage of preparations, having the programming in place and now arranging the logistics, there is just the one major hurdle: COVID-19! It is very unfortunate that this came along at the height of our preparations, but we are confident we will overcome this hurdle and that our festival will be an even bigger celebration.

Regarding the soloists and orchestras chosen for the festival, how did you choose these and was there an underlying philosophy or concept behind this?

A: The concept was very simple: to invite the best international orchestras who were available during the timeframe of our festival, and to feature the most renowned classical music stars from all over the world who had availability at the time of engaging them (two years ago). As such, we will be hosting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (UK), Liège Royal Philharmonic (Belgium), State Philharmonic Orchestra of Rhineland-Palatinate (Germany), Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (Israel), the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra and the Russian National Orchestra alongside the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. We will also be featuring world-renowned conductors, and artists of the likes of Grigory Sokolov, Martha Argerich, Denis Matsuev, Rudolf Buchbinder, Danielle De Niese, Gidon Kremer, Maxim Vengerov and Daniel Hope just to mention a few from the very long list of internationally acclaimed artists from 24 countries.

This year has obviously suffered significant disruptions due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent containment measures. Has this presented difficulties when organising the festival, and do you foresee any future obstacles related to this?

A: It has definitely been the worst setback one could possibly imagine...the difficulties were already enormous and complicated enough without factoring in the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we couldn’t stop planning the festival. We have of course worked on a ‘Plan B’ (and C) if needed, and we are very determined to deliver this festival in one way or another. We feel an obligation towards our followers and the global audience. Should we be restricted from allowing a physical audience in the halls, we are already looking on the bright side, confident in the knowledge that many thousands of people will be able to tune in from around the world. In that sense we’d actually have an even bigger reach, so there’s no reason to be discouraged by the situation.

K: Yes, and in addition to what Alan has already said about our provisions for operating the festival during possible COVID-19 restrictions, I would just like to add that we will also be extending the front of the stage, blocking out the stalls in the process, in order to provide sufficient distance between players onstage. After all, some of the orchestras performing in the festival number over 80 people, so we have to make sure they are all adequately protected and that social distancing measures are respected. As well as this, we together with Showshappening.com have already introduced an innovative approach to the ticketing system which will automatically ‘block out’ two metres of seating around any audience seat booked for any of our concerts. This ensures that social distancing is maintained while still allowing us to flexibly increase the capacity of the hall later should the restrictive measures be eased.

Bringing six orchestras to Malta in addition to the two resident ensembles - MPO and MYO - must be quite an undertaking to say the least. Aside from the COVID-19 issues discussed, which hurdles have had to be overcome when organising this?

A: I wouldn’t say hurdles, but of course the logistical challenges are enormous. When an orchestra is involved – meaning an entourage of around 80 people – to cater for flights, transportation, accommodation, hospitality, rehearsing facilities, transportation of instruments or rather even provision of bulky instruments which cannot always be flown in etc, it’s always a ‘nightmare’. So instead of one nightmare, we have six of them (laughing). However, it is just the workload, as the method and approach is quite uniform once one has established a modus operandi. We’ve been planning considerably in advance and I’m confident that everything will fall into place nicely as we have a very detailed operations plan in place. Now it’s just a matter of implementation.

The festival welcomes back Alexey Shor as its Composer-In-Residence for 2021, a composer with whom the EUFSC has now developed a long-standing relationship. What can you tell us about this resonance?

A: This long-standing relationship has developed very naturally from the first event together back in Malta in 2015. The feedback and interest we received regarding his music was very encouraging. This led to his music and productions being featured in further events, concerts and productions of larger scale and stature. This success continued to build and develop from one project to the next, projects which included performances of his piano works which featured in our piano competitions, concertos which were premiered with various orchestras, the ‘Crystal Palace’ Production which was first premiered as a traditional Ballet and later also adapted into an ice show. His output has been also increasing and developing in different forms, from solo repertoire to very grand works - including the ‘Great Siege’ for two orchestras which will feature at the opening of our Festival. So, he’s really stepped perfectly into the role within the projects of the EUFSC, his music and productions resonating in every country where they have been performed. The feedback from the public is what matters most; it has been great and as such it seems natural for us to keep developing projects which are accomplishing our main aim of promoting culture to a wide audience.

Finally, what are both of your hopes for the future of the classical music landscape here in Malta?

A: I think education and sustainability are probably the most two important factors one ought to reflect upon. When I compare Malta now to 20–30 years ago, giant steps have been made in terms of the quantity and quality of the concerts and productions which the public have the opportunity to enjoy. The public is now ‘spoiled for choice’ as it were, as there is so much happening and the standard has naturally improved to an international level. In fact, there is even the risk of an oversupply and sometimes we see cultural providers and concert organisers who struggle to mobilise audiences. That’s where education and awareness are brought into play. Through education we need to keep on instilling an interest in classical music in the minds of our youngsters. After all, they are our future audience.

K: Indeed, and internationally my hope is for Malta to be recognised – as I believe it increasingly already is – as a new centre for classical music not just in the Mediterranean and not just in Europe but around the world. The geography and climate of the island, its proximity to the rest of the continent and the wealth of creativity in Malta all make it a perfect home for classical music, and I strongly believe that by helping promote Maltese musicians and ensembles, as well as by inviting artists of the highest calibre to the country, we can help raise Malta’s stature as a hub for creativity in Europe.

Interview by James Cummings.

InClassica Malta International Music Festival 2021 will run from 17 April – 11 May 2021, and will be held at the Mediterranean Conference Centre (MCC) in Valletta.

For tickets and full concert listings visit www.inclassica.com.

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