Margareta Ferek Petrić: The Biennale is the essence of my approach to writing and listening to music

Interviewed by: Karolina Rugle
Margareta Ferek Petrić, artistic director of the Music Biennale Zagreb and a new member of the Assembly of Representatives of the Croatian Composer’s Society (HDS)
We talked about the everyday work of a composer, how the crisis drives creative solutions and new ideas, and about the first year of the new artistic management of the largest project of the Croatian Composers’ Society 
Composer and artistic director of the Music Biennale Zagreb and a recent member of the Assembly of Representatives of the Croatian Composer’s Society (HDS), Margareta Ferek Petrić shared with us the plans and thoughts on the program of the 31st MBZ from two perspectives: “One is before the pandemic and the earthquake in Zagreb, when the program was almost clear and finalized, while the other is currently ‘hanging’ in some mid-air where nothing can be defined given the situation we’re in.” We talked about the everyday work of a composer, about how crisis drives creative solutions and new ideas and the first year of the new artistic management of the largest project of the Croatian Composers’ Society, a festival launched 60 years ago that she, along with her associates in the festival board Ivan Josip Skender, Tomislav Oliver and Davor Hrvoj, will be taking into the new decade.
- How did this past year of your life look like?
Until the moment the world was not yet hit by the pandemic, and then Zagreb by earthquake, my calendar was full of trips, deadlines, performances, meetings… everything was planned a year and a half ahead. At one point, everything just stopped, and a lot of it toppled.
- What has changed since you were entrusted with shaping the artistic path of the next two Music Biennale Zagreb festivals?
There are two levels at which I notice certain changes. One is in a way psychological, personal; time coordination in performing all tasks and roles that I have in my professional life is a great challenge. In addition to managing the Biennale, I extensively compose and lead a private class of a dozen students. If we add the private life to all this, I often wish the day had 34 hours, preferably without sleep. Although I became very disciplined over the years compared to how I was in my twenties, over the past year I have cemented the cycle of functioning, the fixed processes that define my day (usually consisting of 10-12 hours of work, except on weekends). 
A clearer insight
The hardest thing for me has been learning how to coordinate in my mind my own world of creativity, an introverted world of composing with the extroverted needs of running a festival that include constant communication, availability and following up with a large number of other artists. Looking from a professional angle, it seems to me that the role of artistic director of a festival carries a certain importance; when I’m in the role of a composer, the audience always asks me something about the festival when congratulating me on my work. I could say that one role in a way makes the other one stronger and complements it. Now I have a clearer insight from both roles – the organizer and the artist – and I can change the function when necessary.
- How was the program of the 31st MBZ created, as it is celebrating 60 years since the launch of the first MBZ?
My first thought was that it must be truly celebratory, dynamic and interesting. I have already had most of it in a concept, but in contact with reality, everything goes through a metamorphosis for practical reasons: for some of the more desirable guests, 2021 was already fully planned, some are simply too expensive or we didn’t see eye to an eye and had to look on. Although it’s an anniversary and the focus is automatically on some sort of a retrospective, I thought it was very important to include as many composers, both male and female, of the younger and middle generation as well as ensembles that are in the thick of the latest events on the scene, so that this retrospective does not live for itself but rather acts as a jumping board toward the future. A healthy balance between Croatian and international also played a big role.
A precarious future
At this moment, I have several versions of the program. From a very modest version to the best-case scenario despite the cuts. We do not know when travelling or organizing events such as concerts that include an orchestra performance will again be possible, we do not have a clear idea on the financial circumstances due to budget restructuring after the disaster that hit Zagreb, and the progression of reconstructing the venues that should have played an important role (the most important one being the Croatian Music Institute) is also uncertain. When it comes to co-productions, it is difficult to make a decision on anything on the international level when everything is still under question as to future possibilities of travel. That is why my goal is to work on national forces and to mix outside the boundaries of academic contemporary classical music. However, that leap beyond academic boundaries is actually my goal, regardless of the new circumstances.
- What is new in this program format, and what has been retained from the previous ones? Did the manner of presenting the program change or are we still mostly having a classical concert-and-performance scheme?
For me, a clear and splendid cut with regards to the past happened with the MBZ 2019, and as such it serves as an example of a kind for me to follow and develop further. It communicated with a much wider audience, not only through an excellent choice of venues and versatile program selection, but also through announcements and modern design. It also had an excellent international workshop, students were given a free space for creativity within the Knapanje program and the festival moved away from a bit tedious traditional approach, as it dared enter a space beyond the strictly academic. In general, I believe that the festival is still definitely responsible for presenting the classical concert scene; excellent ensembles and pieces should always get their space and time. But judging by myself as a regular concert goer, I had to admit that sometimes I was bored if there were more concerts in similar venues and in the same context. Therefore, the goal is to use venues that are not just concert halls, transform typical situations between the audience and the performers, prepare surprises at the very core of concert habits and stimulate as many senses as possible. Interactivity and mobility remain in the focus.
- Are there some thematic or poetic lines that have determined the program of the next MBZ? Which criteria guided you and the festival board in shaping the program and collaborations? What is not to be forgone and to which changes are you open?
If we take as a starting point the reply Milko Kelemen gave to the question “what is music?”, which was: “Music is the projection of the chords of the impressive (majestas, fascinans, tremendum, energicum, sanctum, mirum) on musical structures,” and if we look at how ideas and structures change over time and how many answers there are to this question, it is very clear that there is a common guiding light to every composing drive, as well as numerous variations. It is time itself as the protagonist that influences the moulding of the individual, while transience as an unavoidable factor, particularly in music, reveals the sensibility of a creator as per course of events. 
Unforgettable moments
I have partially managed to put together a program as time travel of a kind, as a confrontation between the old and the new that always leads to the present and opens the door towards the future. This is important to me both within individual concerts and the span of the entire festival. After so much has already been explored and has become a cliche in a way, I strive to find the originality and strength of composer’s individual expression, as well as a certain kind of radicalism and self-confidence in the performance of musicians and ensembles. I don’t want pale, easily forgotten concerts, but works and people that inspire, encourage thought, even irritate. Without it, there is no art that leaves a mark, and the purpose of this type of festival is just that – to create unforgettable moments in a historic line and in some way influence a cultural society.  
- What was the dynamics of collaborating with your associates in the artistic management and with the partners with whom you were arranging and creating programs?
When selecting a program board, I think it is important that everyone brings something individual to it, that we all complement each other with our differences, as well as that majority are representatives of the new generation. Our common goal is to engage artists we enjoy listening to at home and at concerts, musicians we admire and that we believe would enrich the history of Zagreb concerts if we host them. The program board therefore primarily approaches this very idealistically, since it is comprised of composer and professor Tomislav Oliver, composer, conductor and professor Ivan Josip Skender and irreplaceable jazz expert and absolute music lover, Davor Hrvoj. 
The brain of the festival
After all our enthusiastic plans are made, the head producer (also the executive editor of the children’s program of the MBZ), Nina Čalopek, enters the scene. Personally, I see her as the brain of the festival as she has the perfect experience from the previous years of working on the festival and the perfect balance between creative, ideological and practical, without which nothing would be possible. I gladly regularly consult and chat with more experienced colleagues; I very much care to have an excellent relationship with our secretary-general Antun Tomislav Šaban, who is the guardian of all our financial channels. All in all, I would say that we have excellent relationship and communicate well and that we will surely manage to create something meaningful and unforgettable even in these crazy times.  
- Has this new 'duty' influenced your composing work?
It did, both in a good and bad way. I am pretty late with all scores that various ensembles expect from me, precisely because of the mentioned struggle between these roles that I have, so I mostly don’t have enough time. However, when researching composers and ensembles, I came across even more repertoires than before. Thus, new impulses evolve in the creative side of my mind, subconsciously even, as all information that a person gathers influence the subsequent course of expressing the composer’s thoughts.
Expected adrenaline
- Is your view of this role now different from the image you had during the last festival, after you have been selected as the artistic director of the MBZ?
To tell you the truth, I have to admit that I didn’t know exactly what awaited me in this role, but life, above all, has taught me not to have too many concrete expectations, just to learn as I go and see how things would work best. And I love being thrown into cold water by experiences. Anyway, it turned out that there is a lot more work with everything that I thought. This in itself does not bother me, but it is a great shame that a part of my work is kind of hanging in mid-air due to the new circumstances. In any case, I can already imagine the adrenaline boost once the festival is really underway. We will need a lot more energy and luck with some things, but above all, in addition to doing our best as a team, I hope we will also have a good time, together with the audience.
- It is nine months until the planned start of the first festival under the artistic leadership of Margareta Ferek Petrić. At what stage is the Festival program, what has been planned for the 31st MBZ?
The program has kind of switched from a finished form back to creating and adapting to conditions, that is, it needs to be ready to face all challenges that may come our way, some of which probably at the last minute. I have ‘moved’ several guests to 2023, when I hope everything will get back to normal. Some I had to postpone, and most is on hold until we see how the situation develops.
No guarantees
- What is happening in the MBZ kitchen these past weeks? Did you redraft the program ideas into alternative possibilities in line with the imposed circumstances amid the pandemic, as well as the consequences of the recent earthquake? Are associates, partners and artists ready for changes, for joint drafting of new ideas and ways of their realization?
It is actually a process that has just begun, so it cannot be expected to end soon. We know our goals, but having in mind the instability of structures, we are all open to new possibilities. We are “cooking” ideas that are mostly turning to digital solutions, and even to the option of the so-called social distancing in performances. I am closely watching what is happening on the international scene. On the one hand, I am happy that this edition is planned for next year, considering that the pandemic-related conditions may recur and there are no guarantees for anything we currently have planned.
- If the best-case scenario would be holding the MBZ at almost full capacity with the least changes, what would the Biennale definitely bring us next April? What are you hoping for, what are the program pillars you are looking forward to presenting to the audience?
I am delighted that communication and collaboration with the Croatian National Theater in Zagreb has been reestablished and that we might have a traditional opening with the first performance of a Croatian opera (by composer Berislav Šipuš) coproduced with this important institution. The evening would end in a relaxed mood, with a DJ. In this way, we would show that traditional and contemporary can successfully coexist and can open the path for a very diverse program. I hope that the orchestral concerts can be held as we plan to have exceptional soloists, excellent selected pieces and two female conductors who have not yet had an opportunity to be presented in Zagreb. 
Interactive programs
The list includes a large number of interesting musicians who will bring contemporary music closer to the audience and show its strong communicative potential through different forms and contexts and in a very individual, and partially also intimate way. It is this notion of communication that has been important to me from the beginning. I try to revive it in all available forms, even now before the festival in certain communication with the colleagues from the Assembly of Representatives of the Croatian Composer’s Society, and later with the audience at concerts – by including the Music Academy students, lectures, program for children and youth and some program points that encourage the audience to participate.
- The announcement text mentions the “metamorphosis of the festival,” the inclination to develop and search for utopia – how did you build on that idea, what do you see as a necessary metamorphosis of this festival?
Internationally, the Biennale has had a strong reputation thanks to its glorious past, but in the last year I have experienced many instances in which people were positively surprised that the festival still exists. I would like us to be able to emphasize its importance on the international scene, that people interested in contemporary music start planning their visits to Zagreb for the MBZ period and for it to remain/become one of the hot spots of the scene. The main metamorphosis already happened in 2019 and now we just have to push it further, interest wider audience, bring the experimental sound closer not only to a wider circle of people, but to incite the curiosity of professionals who would rather perform and listen to traditional classical music. There is a time and a place for everything. I believe it is very important to go beyond the boundaries of the strictly academic into as many directions as possible and to encourage each other’s interests for “the different.”
Old as a refreshment
- The anniversary festival has also been announced as a “memory and celebration of the past and persons connected with it, as well as facing the younger generations – the so-called contrasts of time – the contrasts between the bygone and the current.” How did your team formulate the program that reflects remembrance, but also strives towards development and reflects today’s modernity of sound expression?
Remembrance will not be the focus of the program, but a logical accompaniment to everything the present represents. Indeed, I want those select few older compositions to act as a refreshment in the perception of sound and to remind us where we have started from and how far we have come in treating various aesthetics.  
- What is the role of the most important festivals such as this one in the current circumstances and situation shaped by the pandemic-related measures and political decisions and the un(defined) institutions in culture?
Festivals must continue to fight for their positions as they are not only fighting for jobs in culture, but are also enabling some sort of escape from everyday life, they are giving their visitors a haven of creativity. Only recently, during the quarantine, did it become clear how much we depend on social life that is connected with culture. A big part of what we consume online every day is art, but absolutely nothing can replace meetings at concerts, rehearsals and live performances, and the processes that take place in interactions between musicians and audience in specific venues. Institutions should finally realize very clearly and strongly that they cannot exist as only an end in themselves and start thinking long-term and generously promote sustainability of cultural workers and events. It often seems to me that, regardless of the country, there are very few politicians with a vision and awareness of the interconnectedness of the states of various fields. During the favorable working conditions, artists generate interested and numerous audience, they create a reputation not only for themselves, but also for their native states and/or states in which they are working. Furthermore, it has been proven that culture also boosts the economy, that it affects the rate of satisfaction in society.