It takes a village to raise a music festival, so what happens when you put one musician in charge of everything? Well, first of all, you need to find a pretty exceptional leader. Alex Raineri is that person: he’s a pianist based in Brisbane but known all over Australia and internationally for his virtuosity and musicality. As a pianist, he says, it’s part of your job to become a curator. Your start early, figuring out “how to fill a solo program, whether that means three pieces or a half an hour set”. So perhaps his newest venture, the Brisbane Music Festival, was meant to be for this pianist. We caught up with Alex to grab five of the most important things he has learnt about mounting a new festival.
You can start with the repertoire first.
The Brisbane Music Festival is an idea I’ve been chipping away at for a few years and it has become a collection of concerts with a multipurpose aim. The most powerful rationale to begin with though, was to program pieces that have been on my bucket list forever! It sounds cheesy but my list of big chamber works that I’ve never had an opportunity to perform is enormous and eclectic, and building concerts around these works seemed like the perfect opportunity to play them in public! It’s similar for the musicians that I’m working with during the festival - Macarthur Clough, Lachlan O’Donnell and Katherine Philp - they have the same feelings about the repertoire. As working freelance musicians, you often get told what’s on the program, so it’s really exciting to have complete freedom over what we get to play. There’s no specific thread throughout the overall festival; each concert is an individual offering of works that I am incredibly passionate about. The whole festival has been about looking for possibilities and creating opportunities to play interesting works together.
It’s not easy, but you can be in charge of organisation and also perform.
I keep doing this to myself! Building these enormous programs and then going through the stages of grief to get them ready. This time though, I think I’ve played roughly half of the repertoire before, which doesn’t make it easy, but does make it easier. It’s mentally and emotionally tiring to try difficult things in a highly pressurised environment like, say, a brand new festival, but I thrive on living on the edge of chaos, I think! I also think there is some truth in the saying that when there is too much to do, you don’t leave any time to get stressed. It’s not the most practical way of working, but that’s part of it too - there is innate risk in curation because you’re placing passion above practicality. That for me is where the joy is.
Having a strategy for pulling audiences is pretty damn important.
I try, when I’m programming new works, to make sure that there’s an appropriately marketable slant to the overall concert. When you’re working on putting together a concert, it’s important to remember how entrenched you are in the new music world, particularly compared to the audience who is buying your tickets. Finding a balance that respects the music for what it is but also allows for it to be heard the new music sphere is what I’m working towards. I’ve tried to pair familiar sounding pieces with those that stretch your ear a little. I think there’s something to be said for complimenting by dissonance! Everyone knows what they already like to listen to, and I’m all about broadening that in a positive way.
People are sometimes still confronted by Boulez on a program because it’s not what their ears were expecting. In saying that, though, if a performance is given with gusto and skill, it’s rare for an audience to have a bad experience. Getting audiences to turn up to the event in the first place though, that’s the hardest thing! That’s why I’m leaning towards juxtaposing the old and the new, the known and the unknown.
“Think big until you’re restricted by practicality”
A part of my driving ethos as a musician is to contribute to the musical community that I exist in; that’s where my drive to work with composers and commission new music comes from. For me personally, there is a deeper, more meaningful factor when you feel as though you’re part of the process, making a positive impact. That’s an essential part of being a musician and being a piano player. There are so many good pianists and I’ve never been driven by being competitive. I don’t need to be the world’s greatest piano player, but I do want to keep creating and pushing my own boundaries.
I’m passionate about all the work I do. It’s a tricky business to be in and the act of making music and staying in top form requires dedication. It comes with emotional sweeps up and down the spectrum, but curating makes you stand back from that and feels more holistic. It requires you to believe in yourself and your vision, which isn’t always easy as a performer.
Finding like-minded supporters and communities is crucial.
I’ve been grateful for all the support I’ve had along the way from funding and philanthropy. I think I’ve been fortunate so far in my curation experience to have never been truly stuck, and as a result, I’ve never had a bad experience. There have been difficult parts of the process, but it has been a journey and every new step in the process has gone towards refining my overall skills. I’m practicing curating right now like I practice the piano - you have to do it to know you can.
The Brisbane Music Festival runs until Sunday 16th December. Tickets and more information here.