Malta Philharmonic artistic director resigns over clash with Sigmund Mifsud

Malta Philharmonic artistic director Raoul Lay says his differences with MPO chairman Sigmund Mifsud made it impossible for him to discharge his duties

MPO artistic director Raoul Lay
MPO artistic director Raoul Lay

The Malta Philharmonic Orchestra has lost its second artistic director over differences with MPO chairman Sigmund Mifsud.

Conductor Raoul Lay told culture minister José Herrera that he was unable to convince Mifsud to “remedy the malfunctions which hinder the normal and serene exercise of my duties” and that he not able to work on the general organisation of all MPO activities.

“Whether it’s the operas given at the Manoel Theatre or in Gozo, the tours conducted by the principal conductor, the need to hire better orchestra soloists, the need to modify the defective acoustics of the Manoel Theatre, my proposals for touring especially in China, my wish to record French music records, my proposal of a good partnership with the French Embassy for hosting French high-known soloists, my proposal of building an IMOF (International Malta Opera Factory) which first seemed to enthuse Mr. Mifsud... almost all the advice I’ve been able to provide was not listened to,” Lay said in his letter of resignation.

He said his proposal for a foreign tour in China which he said would have generated income from performing in the prestigious Shanghai New Music Festival, was rejected by Mifsud.

“Generally speaking, I was confronted by Mr Mifsud with the following contradiction: ‘To improve the musical level of the orchestra, to make it play on an equal level with the great European orchestras, but at the same time to keep it exactly as it is today!’ As a conductor working internationally (Argentina, China, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Canada, Spain...) I can guarantee that some musicians playing at MPO today will never have the level of an international orchestra,” Lay bluntly said.

Lay said none other than Laurence Monti, the concert leader for the Toulon Provence Méditerranée orchestra, had witnessed what he said was the “low level of competition” of the MPO.

“I was trying to be as cooperative possible in order to participate in Mr Mifsud’s vision of the orchestra. In fact, after these programming of two concerts, all my proposals were massively rejected by Mr Mifsud,” Lay said, adding that he was unable to put forward his more ambitious artistic choices for the MPO’s porgramme.

“Mr Mifsud urged me, for the benefit of the orchestra, to try new supersoloists, indicating to me that the current MPO concert leader intended to gradually move from the orchestra to a role in education. So I invited a French concert leader, and the reception of the orchestra was very cold because everyone thought I wanted to replace the current concert leader. Even today I do not understand the interest of pitting people against each other, when music needs an atmosphere of natural harmony,” Lay said.

Lay also claimed Mifsud rarely answers the phone, “sets appointments to which he does not go, changes his mind on major artistic issues, is basically unreliable in a relationship that requires real follow-up.”

Lay’s departure follows that of Maestro Brian Schembri, the principal conductor of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra in 2017.

The MPO’s management had accused the conductor of abandoning orchestra musicians when he refused to attend a season closing concert, after a disagreement with Sigmund Mifsud.

Disagreement between Mro Schembri, celebrated as one of Malta’s most brilliant musicians and the youngest ever to obtain the Royal Schools of Music’s licentiate, and Mifsud, had been ongoing for months. Schembri had resisted changes in the conditions of his contract and was adamant that Mifsud – who is also the conductor for the MPO’s Rockestra performance – recognises that he was still the orchestra’s artistic director.

Mifsud is himself a former orchestra member, and was appointed executive chairman in 2013. He has contested the last two general elections on behalf of the Labour Party.