Chuffed and relieved at the audience’s reaction

PETWORTH Festival artistic director Stewart Collins is in optimistic mood as he starts to unveil the shape of his second programme in charge.

Tomorrow - Thursday March 3 - sees the festival mailing out its preview brochure, a glimpse of things to come in another busy summer ahead.

“It’s amazing how much you do learn in your first year,” says Stewart. “You read the tea leaves before programming and you try to make sure that you are going in the right direction.

“It’s a mixture of what you as artistic director want to do and, every bit as important, what you hope the audience will want to come and see. Getting that balance is the challenge.

“But having now met the audience that come along to Petworth, I have now got an idea what they like, and I have to say that it is very much in sympathy with what I wanted to do. I was quite chuffed and relieved!”

Last year, Stewart had two months to put together the programme and was delighted with the way things went.

“It was a very rewarding and enjoyable experience. I have worked with quite a lot of festivals but with this one, there really was so much positive feedback. For me, the community feel that you get at Petworth was extraordinary, with everybody rightfully happy to come up to the director of the festival to say what they liked and what they wanted to see. It was a lovely, relaxed feedback. It was surprisingly special.”

So much so that it ended up breaking all box office records for the festival, up seven or eight per cent on the previous best. Equally crucial, at a time when so many arts organisations are suffering precisely in this respect, sponsorship remained solid - another important factor as Stewart contemplates 2011.

“I am one of those people that would not sleep easily if I was not producing new ideas each time. Obviously an audience wants to feel comfortable, but I also feel that you need to surprise people and have new options.

“One thing I was very aware of was that I don’t think as much as possible has been done to work with younger audiences. This time we are kicking off with an event that directly involves three schools - a recreation of the music and ceremony of the coronation of Henry VIII. That will be our opening concert on July 15 at St Mary’s Church, and we are hoping to have 100-plus school children to make it happen.”

There are several other innovations still in negotiation, but complementing the opening concert will be the closing concert which will see the organist from St Mark’s Venice working with Australian Baroque Brass.

“One of my favourite styles of music is the music from Venice in the 17th century. Again, it will be quite ceremonial.”

The heart of the Petworth Festival will remain classical music, but Stewart is keen also to develop comedy, theatre and jazz events.

“This year we will have Gyles Brandreth coming, which will be fantastically entertaining. He is one of those performers that never fail.”

On the theatre front, the festival will welcome The Fitzrovia Radio Hour with their spoof of 1930s/1940s radio comedy.

Last year the festival boasted around 40 events. We can expect a similar number this year.

“I think there is a real risk of over-programming. There are probably 60-70 events where you think that would be fantastic, but you realise that people have got only a certain amount of time and money and energy. You have got to have a sensible level of events.

“There are two or three events every day and it lasts a fortnight. If you had four or five events a day and lasted three weeks, I think you would outstay your welcome. I think that the current format is pretty good.”

The full porgramme will be announced in April followed by Friends’ booking. Public booking will start at the end of May.

The festival runs from July 9-30.