The dutchman has given Sydney Festival an injection of classical music. But can he still break even at the box office?

1. Do you think there’s enough focus in Sydney on the arts, especially classical music?

Well, I think it’s true that this city already has a vibrant cultural life. The whole thing about Melbourne being more European… as a European I find that a bit of a joke. Still, I would probably say, “Oh, there’s never enough focus on the arts”, but realistically speaking I think the debate is not about the arts versus something else; it’s about how to get people to engage and be lured to classical concerts because we all have busy lives.

2. What performances would you recommend for a classical music lover looking for something a little different?

Eraritjaritjaka features French actor André Wilms and Amsterdam’s Mondriaan String Quartet playing Bach, Shostakovich, Ravel, Bryars, Goebbels and Crumb, combined with video and special effects. It weaves a powerful spell. And Ensemble Kaleidoskop is a young chamber orchestra from Berlin that wants you to hear things differently. They move from Purcell through to the contemporary in a program that explores the land of dreams.

3. There are some strong classical connections in many of the theatre, dance and film events on the program, too.  

It’s one of the really interesting ways to discover new music. Wherever I’ve gone, I’ve liked to find those crossovers. One of the easiest ways of discovering Ligeti is through Stanley Kubrick, and there are millions of people that have really enjoyed 2001: A Space Odyssey without even knowing who Ligeti is. Do you have to spell it out to people; do you have to force-feed them Ligeti? No. Can they enjoy it? Yes. So that’s a good example of what a festival can do. 

4. You directed the Amsterdam Festival and the International Society for Contemporary Music’s festival. How did you get into the biz?

As a second-year musicology student in Belgium, I emptied my savings account and brought the Hilliard Ensemble to Belgium at a time when they were just starting to do these crossovers with Jan Garbarek. And it sold out. I thought, “That’s great, I really love the feeling of sharing
something with an audience”.

5. The festival has a bigger line-up of contemporary classical music than in previous years. How do you program it without dying at the box office?

It’s about making sure the curiosity in people wins. I have to create a level of faith in a festival where people can trust that it’s never going to be torture, it’s really going to be an interesting experience. Take Sandglasses, the little production I’m bringing from Lithuania. Nobody here knows this composer Juste Janulyte, but you have to trust that if you take a deep dive into this cold sea, the swim’s going to be amazing.

Sydney Festival runs from January 5-27. See Lieven’s Top 5 Festival picks here.