The Musica Viva Festival is almost upon us! What has your role been in the process of putting it together as the Artistic Director?
It is my job to choose all the artists and repertoire across the six main festival concerts, which sit at the heart of the four days. The process of picking the artists and the pieces they will be playing has been the result of two years of work - actually, possibly more, considering that we are already planning the 2019 festival! It’s absolutely terrific when it all comes together. I have used the same four pillars of chamber music programming that I use throughout all my Musica Viva concert programs - quality, diversity, challenge, and joy. I devised the strategy about fifteen years ago, with the idea that it would help me show chamber music as a pinnacle of human achievement. People were forgetting about the magic of chamber music, and that is what I wanted to capture.
Tell me about the work you do as Artistic Director outside of the Festival, and how that helps you plan for the four-day celebration of chamber music?
I work on the two main Musica Viva series’ - the International Concert Series and the Coffee Concerts, as well as the two festivals we run: the Huntington Estate Music Festival and the Musica Viva Festival. The distinction of having a touring ensemble like the ones in the International Concert Series is that you have a limited amount of time and repertoire choice, so over the four days I can be a little more experimental: putting together different soloists so to widen the pool of musical possibilities. This festival has a high concentration of musicians over a small period of time, featuring about 40 young artists and 25 established musicians including international performers, so an enormous range of repertoire becomes available. This is helpful because people that go to festivals want to be surprised on every level, so it’s important to make choices of repertoire as diverse as possible. Every work that you’ll hear this week has been chosen with the greatest amount of care.
What are the first steps in programming a festival?
You absolutely have to choose the marquee artists first, because that takes the longest. Every different kind of event you program for has a different timetable, and for festivals, artists usually have to be booked four years in advance - particularly if you’re getting players from overseas. We have some amazing local and international soloists and ensembles, and once I have an indication that the performers are in, I look at putting them together. The Elias Quartet and the Goldner Quartet will be working together, as will Amy Dickson and Elias, etc. It’s about creating experiences - and that is the most extraordinary thing I can do. Every concert has to be a voyage for the audience.
What have you learnt about programming through your work as a composer?
As a composer, I’ve had to consider what makes a good concert experience my entire life. When my pieces were programmed in concerts, they’d be put somewhere specific - perhaps last in the first half, or first in the second, and I’d think about the effect of that choice. The dynamics of concert presentation is really important when you’re curating a festival. It’s completely different programming for the touring International Concert Series because a pre-existing ensemble brings their own dynamic with them, and that’s what you see during the performance: them using that dynamic during the program. With this festival, I get to design the whole audience experience, from start to finish: in terms of the entire four days as well as the individual concerts. I generally approach programming in a similar way to how I approach composition - you need a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s about storytelling and creating a journey for your audience. You want everyone to have a sense of having had a complete experience.
Do you have advice for young performers beginning to curate their own programs?
Of course, rules are meant to be broken, but generally, it is good to start with a smaller work and finish with a larger work, or going the other way - beginning with something grand then following it with something smaller immediately after. It’s about balance. You want a sense of contrast so you keep your audience surprised and engaged. It’s actually hard to make a program fall over, but I do generally like to start off with something reflective and finish it off with something energetic. You have to think about the emotional journey of your audience. That means the shape of each individual work as well as where it fits within the larger program. Ask yourself, what works either side of this work? What is the concert going to make your audience feel? Try and take a long distance view of your program, and consider how you’ll feel at the end of the concert.
The Musica Viva Festival starts on Thursday 20th April, and runs to Thursday 23rd April. Tickets and full program are available here. Photo of Goldner String Quartet by Keith Saunders.