Melbourne Festival artistic director Brett Sheehy serves up a classical music feast like no other.

You previously directed the Adelaide Festival and Sydney Festival. How does the experience of working on the Melbourne Festival compare?

I would say simply that I have responded to the cultural milieu of each city. I haven’t worried about what type of work audiences here are up for, whether it is darker or difficult work, or more celebratory work. I developed an opinion that great art is great art. I have seen this from years of experience, including sitting in audiences across the world, like San Paulo, Bejing, Paris and more. I’ve always just focussed on excellence and my own response to the proposed work.

How has your approach changed over the years?

I don’t have to approach a festival in Melbourne differently to anywhere else in Australia. I’ve been in the festival scene for 16 years now. For part of that, I was exclusively with the Sydney Theatre Company, so I had a fairly limited knowledge of things such as the classical music canon, contemporary visual art and dance. A part of this personal journey has been a learning curve of, for want of a better word, connoisseurship, and developing my own knowledge of and taste for the artforms beyond theatre. So, I suspect there has been a change in the breadth of my knowledge of all forms of art over the progression of directing festivals in the three cities.

That said, what each city has done is give me the opportunity to work with artists in that city whom I wouldn’t have worked with otherwise. In Melbourne, I’ve been able to start a dialogue with all of the artistic community there. That is reflected in the work of this festival, as the majority of Australian work is from local artists.

How does the programming in Melbourne stand out from other major festivals?

When I got the job, I thought about what I could do that would be different. So, rather than bringing in grand orchestras and presenting the dead-white-male canon, I wanted classical music concerts to have a primary focus on living composers and contemporary work. I did it because it would alienate some people.

Two years ago when we brought out the London Philharmonic Orchestra, we were the only city in Australia that demanded an Australian work be played, and that was Graeme Koehne’s Powerhouse. I think that festivals have the opportunity to broaden the horizons in terms of living composers. “Classical” is such a tyrannical term, I’d much prefer to call it “fine” or “orchestrated” music.

The pianist James Rhodes certainly embodies an interesting mix of traditional classical repertoire with contemporary edge in terms of his image.

Well, James is playing an all-classical program, but the contemporary fix there is his evangelical determination to tear down the conservative walls around classical music, and to introduce it to a new audience.

What are you hoping audiences will get out of a work like Steve Reich’s new string quartet about the September 11 terrorist attacks?

I hope Reich’s 9/11 work causes some controversy in that it asks a lot of a traditional audience that may struggle with elements of the composition, like the inclusion of the voices from Ground Zero in a sonic landscape. I don’t want it to cause controversy in terms of a cheap shot. I want to alert audiences that music is being composed right now around contemporary political issues, and that these pieces should be heard. My brief to the Kronos Quartet was that the general theme of the program is politics, revolution and protest.

You’re also an advocate for hybrid and cross-cultural music productions. Is that why you’ve chosen The Magic Flute in Impempe Yomlingo’s South African adaptation?

When I do present an older classical work, I want to present it through a 21st-century lens, not as a costume drama. The only reason that a classic is a classic is because it still resonates with our time, thematically. Likewise with The Magic Flute, apart from the sheer joy of the production, it was a Mozart opera seen through a 21st-century and non-Western aesthetic. The music has been re-scored and rearranged, and it gives it an exciting percussive quality.

What is the most important consideration for you as festival director?

My role is a facilitator between the artist and the audience, and my duty is to convey the artistic vision to the audience. There are now four million people in Melbourne – and they own this festival. I should be able to put the program in front of any one of those people and say with confidence, “I believe there is something in there for you”. For mums, dads, and kids in the suburbs who have never been to an artistic event, I want to guarantee that they will adore something in the program. I see that as being the job, rather than imposing something that I love onto the city.

The Melbourne International Arts Festival runs from 6-22 October and features the Kronos Quartet, pianist James Rhodes, Impempe Yomlingo’s Magic Flute among other acts. View the full program here.