If ticket sales are anything to go by, then people are flocking from far and wide to experience the unique baroque festival that last year found its home in Brisbane. Having started its life as Hobart Baroque, now Brisbane Baroque, it’s the fulfilment of a dream for the organisers, Executive Director Jarrod Carland and Artistic Director Leo Schofield. “When I’m feeling a trifle stressed, rather than drop a Valium, I put on the Goldberg Variations,” Schofield tells Fine Music. He is a delight to speak with. His love and passion for baroque music is immediately apparent, and not just because he uses it as a substitute for calming drugs. His long and rich experiences – first as an advertising professional, and then as food critic and arts festival director extraordinaire – seep through into our conversation. “Part of my general view of festivals is that they should be special enough to attract people from other areas, not just the host city,” he says. “I do believe that underpins most long running international festivals.” The festival had to move from Hobart to Brisbane last year, in the space of a few months. “We seem to be specialists at doing everything in a screaming hurry,” Schofield explains. “It was a pretty nightmarish experience, I don’t really want to have to go through it again.”
On the flipside, Schofield was excited by the reception the festival received in Brisbane. “We had 1,250 people turn up to an organ recital on the last midday concert.” The inaugural event in April 2015 was an exceptional success, with the central performance of Handel’s rare opera Faramondo garnering no fewer than five Helpmann Awards including Best Opera and Best Direction in an Opera. “I find Brisbanites open to anything new and anything exciting. When my colleague Ian Macrae and I brought the Hamburg Ballet to Brisbane, the repertoire was Midsummer Nights Dream, which we knew would be a pretty big hit because people are familiar with the music. But as a second ballet we brought one that nobody had heard of, or seen in Australia, called Nijinsky, and that was the smash of the season.” So what can those making the pilgrimage for Brisbane Baroque 2016 expect that’s new and exciting? Schofield is quick to provide an answer: “Something they’re never going to hear in Sydney,” he offers. “There’s the recital by (American virtuoso mezzo soprano) Vivica Geneaux, which is exclusive to Brisbane. They can hear Handel’s Agrippina, a concert version of King Arthur – they’re the things I’m really excited about, especially the Australian debut of the astonishing young harpsichord virtuoso Mahan Esfahani.”
The art of the festival
If there was ever anyone to ask about how one puts together an arts festival it would be Leo Schofield, having 27 of them under his belt. Does he have it down to a fine art? “No, I’ve just gotten it down to the way I do it,” he says with typical cheekiness. “Other people would do it completely differently and have done it completely differently. Every director puts their own stamp on a festival, for better or worse.” Schofield says the priorities begin with quality, especially those performers at their top of their game, those “fresh to the market” or who have never been to Australia before. “I think that’s a really good selling point. Primus inter pares is the quality of the artist or the group. Close behind is marketability. You can bring in wonderful artists, but unless you have a way of promoting them or selling them, they’ll play to empty houses.” Is there a specific ‘art’ in putting together a baroque festival? “Essentially it’s quite easy to program a baroque festival because there is such an abundance of amazing material, most of it as yet unheard or unplayed,” says Schofield. “That’s been the secret of the success of the baroque revival, or at least the historically informed theme.” And perhaps the way such music was originally performed may have something to do with the success of Brisbane Baroque. “There’s just a feeling of authenticity about the early sound, it’s more intimate,” says Schofield.
– Simon Moore