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Profile: Stewart Collins, producer and artistic director of the Petworth Festival

18/09/2020

The Petworth Festival has announced its special autumn programme yesterday. 25 events will be filmed live from the festival’s ‘home’ venues St Mary’s Petworth and the Leconfield Hall and will be streamed via its website.

Simon O’Hea has been in conversation with its artistic director, Stewart Collins.

As an artistic director, what informs your musical preferences?

I am keen to get away from pigeonholing people into the various genres. I love musicians who are able to move between the various genres – Joanna MacGregor, Matthew Barley, André Previn and Leonard Bernstein come particularly to mind.

I am particularly fond of 19th-century Romantic and French impressionist music, but I also admire the great Jazz musicians. One of my favourite pieces is Oscar Peterson’s Hymn to Freedom, which I programmed as part of the festival’s 40th anniversary year to be played by four pianists from four different traditions, which was amazing.

I was brought up to believe that classical music was the one and only thing. But once I’d become a professional choral singer, I saw that genius has many different disguises, and that there is an incredible amount of talent everywhere you look. Having to make a living from music-making, I also recognised how hard you have to work whatever your calling if you are to make it in the harshly competitive world we live in. I think that it’s given me an empathy with up-and-coming musicians, and a good reading of talent.

Having been both a choral scholar as well as an active member of the Footlights whilst a history student at Cambridge, I co-founded the four-part group Cantabile which was set up in the mould of the King’s Singers. We did quirky numbers drawn from across the board – cabaret, madrigals, topical songs, Schubert lieder and a whole lot more, including a memorable 15 month run in the West End.

After 15 years of professional singing, family pressures eventually made for a change, and I was fortunate to be offered the position of artistic director of the Henley Festival. I’ve now been there for 30 of its 39 years. I’ve been artistic director of the Petworth Festival for 11 years and proud to have seen that reach its 40th year, not to mention having founded a now very well established literary week.

What makes for success in directing an arts festival such as Petworth?

It’s a bit like being a cook: you identify incredibly good ingredients, but until they are stirred into the mix and cooked up they won’t make a good dish. And, following the cooking analogy through, you need to be able to find a balance of flavours. A kaleidoscope is better than one theme. You will be looking to cater to a wide variety of tastes.

I’ve also very much supported identifying and bringing on new, young talent. Over the past five years I’ve fostered a most valuable relationship with the Royal Academy of Music, a relationship which has resulted in concert series at each of the last five festivals featuring soloists and performers selected and endorsed by senior staff at the conservatoire. Beyond that we’ve also made a point of working year-on-year with ensembles from West Sussex Music, and more recently both The Musicians’ Company and the Live Music Now charity. Gratifyingly the audiences for these events have really been building.

What about this autumn’s festival?

In July we ran a cut-down festival, online. And this autumn we are looking to distil the best of what we had in the summer into a 15-day programme featuring the highest-profile events that we ran in the summer. It’s wonderful that such talent is available to join us. Some of it will be drawn from the RAM. We’ll also be re-broadcasting Harry Rylance and the Voreios Trio, all of whom are young and extremely gifted musicians, while there will be a small live audience for the other events. Read more

We are extremely thankful to our sponsors: there are too many to mention individually, but you can read their names here.

We have already been overwhelmed by the support we have received from many of our Friends and Supporters, but the Festival will still need all the help it can get to enable us to overcome the many challenges the Covid-19 crisis has forced on us. As such we appeal to everyone who loves the Petworth Festival to help us survive into 2021 and beyond by making a donation, however small. Thank you.

Author: Simon O'Hea with Stewart Collins

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