29 November 2023

Canberra International Music Festival set for new high notes under ideas man Ughetti

| Ian Bushnell
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Eugene Ughetti

Canberra International Music Festival artistic director Eugene Ughetti wants to engage with the big ideas. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Canberra International Music Festival’s new artistic director won’t get to stage his first event until 2025. But early indications are that Eugene Ughetti wants to make an impact and believes the national capital can be a national and international music destination.

The festival is already embracing change in 2024, halving in length to be a more compact, accessible and exciting five-day event. And while it’s early days for the Melbourne-based percussionist, composer and conductor – he already has a bunch of ideas.

One of them is using Lake Burley Griffin to stage a concert by deploying a flotilla of boats. Another is a big massed outdoor processional work. He also wants to make more use of Canberra’s national institutions and great architectural spaces, and expose people to music they probably wouldn’t pay to hear in a concert hall, but might in the future.

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“There’s a certain kind of concert that will occur in a concert hall, and then there’s a certain type of music that might occur in an alternative space, and then there are works that might be free public programming that occur in public spaces,” he says.

“And those works could involve professional musicians, they could involve student choirs, they could involve untrained performers. Whoever it is, there’s a meaningful relationship between the art, the artists, the sites, and the audience.”

How he personally approaches music provides an insight into how Canberra’s festival could become more interactive, more connected to location and one bristling with ideas.

Music for him at his stage of life is more about ideas, concepts and experiences.

“I’m looking for the way in which music can engage with these bigger ideas. Or the way in which a musical event, not just a performance but a musical event, is framed around a broader experience,” Mr Ughetti says.

“So that means engaging with site, it means engaging with different cultures, in whatever form they are, with artists that have particular personalities with geopolitical things. So it’s music as a driver for broader ideas and creative experiences.”

He says the festival should also be a place of discovery for audiences, to experience things they wouldn’t usually roll up to.

“Fundamentally, there has to be a distinction between a festival and a gig on any ordinary night of the week.”

While festival goers are usually more open to something new, Mr Ughetti believes it’s also his job to make them feel safe to experience the unconventional.

So before people start wondering just where the festival is heading, he doesn’t have any agendas and isn’t out to alienate the festival’s current audience or limit music to any particular form or conversely put on a smorgasbord that blurs its identity.

He prefers the term art music to different labels such as classical.

“I use the word art music very deliberately, because it’s not pigeonholing a specific period of time, like the classical era,” Mr Ughetti says.

“It’s not pigeonholing a certain style of composer, or a composer who has a big output in chamber music repertoire or operatic repertoire.

“I’m not trying to pigeonhole any of that, except to say that what this festival does is it puts music that is experienced as art into its festival. It’s not a pop music festival. It’s not an easy listening kind of thing. It’s really about putting art music at the centre.”

He wants to grow the audience, but not necessarily just the numbers. Any festival that wants a future knows it has to capture those younger demographics that at present aren’t engaging with it, but without throwing the baby out with the bath water.

“The goal is to grow the audience without alienating or compromising the tastes and the passions of the existing audience,” Mr Ughetti says. “So that means presenting a pretty broad offering. But it also means doing it in a really smart way, where you don’t suddenly try and become a jack of all trades and basically just become a bit of everything.”

That’s the challenge and as every website bio says, Eugene Ughetti is known for tackling complex and ambitious art music projects. But importantly for him, the festival maintains its integrity and continues to commit to quality.

“I’ve noticed really quickly about Canberra audiences and the festival audience – they have a very good scent for integrity and quality,” he says. “And I think yes, to some degree, there’s a taste question there as well. But in terms of the style of music, or the type of music people like, I think the number one metric is that there is the highest level of integrity.”

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That balancing act extends to the dance between the festival’s local, national and international components, giving due recognition to the Canberra community, audiences and artists but acknowledging the bigger picture.

“It needs to be responsive and sensitive to the local community and the local infrastructure. But on the other hand, what’s going on here in Canberra in the festival has to be seen by the world as something that is amazing,” Mr Ughetti says.

“That’s a balance, but I think it’s totally doable.”

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