While COVID-19 remains a challenging reality for most cultural activities, KorMalta is approaching the situation as an opportunity to experiment with new concepts. Choir director Riccardo Bianchi tells Ramona Depares how he hopes these new initiatives will help further collaborations with other artists while engaging new audiences.
When COVID-19 hit, it was a bad blow for the entire creative sector, but especially so for KorMalta, which was just readying itself for its first full programme of events. Months of enforced inactivity, as rehearsals were completely stopped as per regulations, followed, in what must have been an entirely frustrating experience for our national choir.
Fast-forward to today, and not only is KorMalta rising triumphantly out of the ashes of 2020, but it’s also emerged a leader within the creative industries, embracing the new normal with enthusiasm and creating an events programme for 2021 that is nothing if not daring and highly-intriguing.
I caught up for a chat with choir director Riccardo Bianchi, who explained that after government issued official guidelines for the way choirs are to operate, it has been a hive of activity for the choristers, leading to the official opening of the season with an open-air concert in October, held at the Greek amphitheatre in Mosta.
“The concert was very well-received and, since then, we have been performing regularly, while strictly following COVID-19 guidelines, of course,” Maestro Bianchi explains. This concert was in fact followed by another highly-lauded one, United We Stand, which presented a selection of renaissance music from English composers in the gorgeous Msida bastion historical garden. Performed by a restricted number of choristers, this was a very apt choice of programming for what was to be one of Malta’s first steps towards a cultural renaissance, and which was followed by an equally well-loved performance at Teatru Manoel with the VIBE orchestra.
Which brings us to today – will the colder weather put a stop to KorMalta events? Thankfully, no, as the choir director tells me that the choir has been working hard to come up with gorgeous events that follow the guidelines to the letter.
“The guidelines require us to perform in a well-ventilated space, so when al fresco performances are not possible we are focusing on ensuring a distance of 2.5 metres between choristers, and 4 metres between singers and audience. Moreover, we cannot have more than 15 people on stage, so playing with our full formation of 50 choristers is turning out to be tricky,” he says.
Because of this, the majority of KorMalta events this year will be focused around projects for a number of smaller ensembles, as the choir has been divided into three groups that all follow a different rehearsal schedule.
But the situation is not too tricky that it can’t be solved with some creative thinking and adventurous spirit, Maestro Bianchi adds. In fact, KorMalta is holding the very first performance in full formation of 40 at the end of this month. The event will feature a selection of music by John Rutter. How is this possible without breaking COVID-19 precautions, I ask.
“ Since we cannot have the entire choir on one stage, we have experimented by placing one chorister per box in the theatre. This means that every singer is isolated both from the other choir members and from the audience, singing from an individual theatre box,” the director replies, a note of understandable excitement in his voice.
Such an event brings with it a number of challenges, of course. The first issue to sort out was rehearsal space, as the venue was not available throughout the entire stretch of rehearsals. Instead, the choir rehearsed at the sizeable Catholic Institute.
“We put measuring tapes on the floor, and had to implement a number of measures even at the rehearsal space. Our logistics manager has certainly been kept busy. These measures are reflected at the venue itself, coupled with extra ones to control the influx of people as they arrive and depart. Full contact , mask-wearing and temperature taking procedures are also followed, needless to say.”
Other challenges are more physical, as the distance between chorister necessarily affects the acoustics of the performance. Figuring out exactly which singer should stand in which box was a feat of logic, as typically sopranos, altos, tenor and bass follow a specific formation.
“We had to make sure that we don’t end up with one section of the theatre missing out on the bass, for example. We can’t place singers from the same SATB strata too far apart, but we can’t place them too close together either. It’s a delicate balance but, happily, we managed,” Maestro Bianchi enthuses.
The rest of the programme is equally exciting, and is based on the theme of Synesthesia, a phenomenon that ties multiple sensory experiences together. The upcoming events also tie with specific values that were identified by Maestro Bianchi, such as performing to the community, an international programme and identifying alternative venues.
“Every concert represents these values, which we feel are especially important in this climate, in particular reaching out to the community while presenting opportunities for collaboration to artists from other artistic forms . It has been a hard year, and as a public choir I do feel responsible for ensuring that the choir does it part in these two areas,” the director confides.
Using Synesthesia as a springboard for offering concerts with a difference plays a part in helping achieve the above. As an example, Maestro Bianchi mentions an upcoming performance in February that will link music and taste through culinary art.
“We are holding a Musical Banquet in collaboration with Heritage Malta and Taste History, which are specialists in recreating original recipes from the past. The audience will enjoy dinner from the royal French court based on recipes found in the Maltese National Library, while the choir will provide the musical repertoire from that era. We actually have a lot of material from the Versailles court, including original compositions by King Louis XII,” the choir director says.
A later event will focus on combining music and sculpture, more specifically the crucifix sculptures created by made by Innocenzo de Petralia, of which Malta boasts two beautiful examples at the church of Ta’ Giezu in Valletta and the Mdina Cathedral. Another event will focus on Caravaggio paintings, while another one still will see live painting sessions combined with a concert, both focusing on the seven wounds that Jesus received on the cross.
“This is a season where circumstances are allowing me to experiment and to create different events, which is something that I have dreamed of. We will follow this formula throughout the season, combining music with other forms of art. I am hoping that this will be a way to reach out to audiences who wouldn’t normally attend choir performances, but who may be attracted by the other artistic aspect,”Maestro Bianchi concludes.