Few would have thought when Rockestra was first staged back in 2009 that the event would be so popular and go on to become an annual fixture in Malta's cultural calendar. More than that, Rockestra, under the direction of Mro. Sigmund Mifsud, the show has also served to bring a good number of singers and musicians to the Maltese public's attention while growing from strength to strength with each passing year. Under the patronage of the President of Malta, the Malta Community Chest Fund (MCCF)'s star-studded fundraiser has, for five consecutive years, consistently offered an explosive night of rocking entertainment but, as artistic director PAUL BORG BONACI says in this interview, what goes on onstage is only half the show, the rest is all up to the audience, which is why the MFCC in Ta' Qali is where you should be on Saturday, September 27.
How soon after last year's edition did preparations for this year's ROCKESTRA begin?
This year things happened a bit differently since H.E. Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca was sworn in as the new President in April and we needed her approval for the concert to be staged. Of course, she was all for ROCKESTRA to continue and promised us her full support, following which a new core team was assembled. I must say it's been really exciting and a lot of innovative ideas have been put forward.
From your experience of the concert, what are the concert's most popular characteristics?
I think there are three different elements that give the show its unique character. First of all, there's the uniqueness of having singers coming from different genres singing on the same stage and accompanied by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO).Despite not going for obvious song choices, the set is quite balanced and we've still managed to keep everyone entertained.
Secondly, it’s vibe of the show; the lights, the sound and all the ingredients that make Rockestra such a great experience really. The fact all the singers are Maltese also instils a sense of pride onstage as well as off it and of course music alwaysbrings people together. It is truly amazing to see the combination of the MPO backing so much local talent. You can tell that they are all enjoying themselves too, and the audience also gets very involved...I like to call it the "Magic of Rockestra”.
Last but not least, there is the generosity of the Maltese people, who are always up for giving a helping hand when asked. The MCCF is continuously supporting people suffering from illness, disability or social distress, and to see the Maltese people respond so generously is truly wonderful. We've all experienced some suffering at some point and personally speaking I feel proud, as I'm sure many others do, that after ROCKESTRA has ended and I'm driving home, that I have made a difference, however small, in the life of someone I don’t even know.
How difficult is it come up with a fresh programme each year?
I must admit it is difficult. The set list is mostly based on covers and after five editions, we've featured most of the best-known rock classics. Thankfully music is always evolving, and rock music has fought its way through the 90s to remain popular with a wide audience to this very day. This of course means we can also feature some contemporary rock songs and arrange them to fit the orchestra/rock crossover, which helps keep things fresh.
What do you feel is the key factor that draws such huge attendances year-in, year- out?
As I said earlier, ROCKESTRA is quite a unique show. If people enjoy themselves one year, they'll most likely come back the next year. Also, the ticket prices are ridiculously cheap for such a show, so while the event is aimed at raising funds for the MCCF it also gives the people an entertaining music experience in return. From the moment the lights go on up till the very last second of the show, the audience is incredible; I don’t think that one can experience this anywhere else in Malta.
ROCKESTRA'S success, fantastic as it is, must surely bring with it some headaches...
The most difficult part is actually selecting the line-up; who to keep, who to say no to, which new singers fit that stage. It isn't easy, but the bottom line is each year's line up has to change, so some have to go and some stay. The thing is, having a good voice doesn’t automatically mean an artist should be in Rockestra’s line-up. One needs to have the whole package - the voice, the attitude, the experience to handle Rockestra’s platform. The audience is massive, so we cannot afford to have someone on stage that cannot grab the crowd and own the stage. A singer is only on for a few minutes but they have to be the best few minutes they can give to make the show work.
This year, Sigmund suggested a new concept, namely to hold auditions for ROCKESTRA, which of course brought with them another type of headache (laughs). We were blown away by the response; some 130 people applied and most of themwere really good. The tricky part was to find the right person for the right song but we did find some really good singers who will give the show more colour. Further to this, we're also going to introduce something new to ROCKESTRA, but I won't tell you just yet.
I'm sure there's a demand for a compilation, perhaps even a DVD featuring a selection of ROCKESTRA performances...
This is something we discuss each year, but there are two things that keep us from doing this. One is the cost involved and the other is the fact that we prefer people to turn up at the concert and be part of the live experience.
What should we expect from this year's concert?
ROCKESTRA is a collective experience that has proved successful time and again and therefore remains largely untouched. Of course we do bring in new ideas and concepts to enhance it, and this year's edition will feature the biggest line-up of singers to date. Several new faces alongside some very established singers as well as Maltese-Australian international artist Nicky Bomba, who will flying in especially for the show. We're also working to present a bigger visual experience and of course, there will be some interesting surprises as always however, my lips are sealed!
A final message to our readers as to why they shouldn't miss this year's ROCKESTRA...
My answer is very simple; we produce 50% of the show, the rest is up to the audience. We would be nothing if not for our audience. We need them to be there, we want them to be there. They are ROCKESTRA!
ROCKESTRA 2014 will be held on Saturday, September 27 and Sunday 28 at the MFCC in Ta’Qali. Tickets cost €15 (seated), €10 (standing adult) and €2 (standing child) and are available either from San Anton Palace (Attard), The Palace (Valletta) or online at ooii.com.mt. For more information, visit the ROCKESTRA 2014 event page on Facebook.
An edited version of this article was first published in VIDA magazine (7 September 2014)
Photo by IRIS photography