SOME WORDS WITH NEIL FRANKS
Chairman of the Petworth Festival
Concert life has been severely disrupted by the global Covid-19 pandemic. Yet the Petworth Summer Music Festival goes on, but now in autumn! As they say, Keep Calm and Carry On! How was this feat made possible?
We are in the most capable hands of one of the UK’s foremost Artistic Directors, Stewart Collins. Stewart was able to retain some of the finest names from our Summer festival with their agreement to perform here in October. It is also thanks to the great generosity of our array of individual and corporate sponsors who have so kindly stayed with us to allow us to keep the festival going
The music programme is now shorter and serves as a prelude to the Petworth Literary Festival. But what a mouth-watering selection of artists your team has gathered. Mitsuko Uchida, the Kanneh-Masons, Howard Shelley, Tasmin Little and the celebrity names goes on. What persuaded them to join the festival?
There are obviously very few concerts taking place around the world at the moment, especially in the main concert halls, London being no exception. We are fortunate to be able to hold our concerts in our usual venue which is St Mary’s Church in the historic West Sussex town of Petworth. Our festival is in its 42nd year and has great regional support and a reputation for presenting some of the finest musicans, and so a combination of our history aswell as our ability to stream the concerts puts us, and consequently our musicians, on the global stage during this time in which musicians are unable to travel to present their performances as they usually do
Was it difficult to coax them to make the journey to West Sussex?
It sounds as though we’re remote, but in fact we’re only a one hour train journey from London!
There will be live performances at Petworth’s historical venues, such as in St Mary’s Church (above), in addition to a now-ubiquitous online presence. How do live performances move you, as contrasted with streamed online concerts?
As a life-long consumer of music, I have missed live performances very much indeed, as has everyone, and so I can’t wait to sit in St Mary’s and listen to these spectacular artists. The church has great acoustics, and we have the benefit of a wonderful Steinway concert grand piano. We have all survived on streamed performances for many months which has been the only option, but also considering the fact that musicians have also missed live performances, we can be sure that the experience will be as moving for the musicians as it will be for our audiences. That will undoubtedly result in some memorable performances. We have already seen examples of the extraordinary expression and emotion from musicians in the very few concerts they have been able to present this year.
Now here is a tough question: Which concerts would you pick as personal favourites for your global online audience to attend?
Indeed this is a hard question to answer, but the opportunity to hear members of Britain’s most famous young musical family, the Kanneh-Masons (below), is a great privilege. They will be performing much of the programme they played at this year’s Proms which was very moving, even in its “virtual” form, and so to hear them perform that programme live (especially the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata!) is going to be very special. I would highly recommend all music lovers to stream this event. I’m also very much looking forward to Mitsuko Uchida’s performance. As I mentioned earlier, the acoustics at St Mary’s, together with the magnificent Steinway Concert grand, is a very special combination. Of course the whole festival will be special but these are two of the highlights for me!
But don’t forget that this year, we’re combining with our Literary Festival during which we will be presenting talks from great writers and personalities such as the highly acclaimed journalist, Martin Bell, author Michael Morpurgo, Anthony Horowitz, one of the UK’s most versatile storytellers. So as you can see, we’re cramming in a huge amount into two weeks!
After your return to UK in 2013 following a long and successful business career in Singapore, how did you get to become the Chairman of the Petworth Festival? Can we in Singapore claim some credit for this?
Singapore was very much our home for 30 years and we had no idea where in England we might like to live, but we stumbled across this part of the country by pure chance, and it’s glorious countryside that includes the famous South Downs National Park, and historic towns including Petworth. We then discovered this rather wonderful festival. My predecessor had presided over the festival for ten years and was keen to find a replacement. Somehow he and his colleagues discovered we’d suddenly arrived from far-away places, and that music happened to be my favourite subject!
Singapore can most certainly claim significant credit as I had many great musical friends there through my years of singing with the Singapore Symphony Chorus as well as piano lessons with the most excellent teachers, Benjamin Loh and Boris Kraljevic. Singapore is obviously very much on the global stage and the numerous concerts and musical experiences kept me in touch with music at the highest level. I felt very fortunate that we were able to enjoy such great venues, of course especially the wonderful Esplanade!
I have always regarded the Petworth Music Festival to be one of England’s best kept secrets, but surely this is changing. Your comments?
We are a small town, but have a great cultural heritage including the world-famous Turner collection on display at Petworth House, one of the country’s many grand country houses, built in the 17th Century. The town is also of national repute for its art galleries and antique shops. The festival enjoys the great support of the local communities that fill every concert and so, whilst our long history of great artistic directors has enabled us to invite such marvellous musicians, perhaps we haven’t had to draw people from far and wide. The miracle we’ve discovered this year is that there is now no limit to our audience capacity thanks to the technology of streaming, hence our efforts to let the entire world know about our rather special festival!
It is now not just an opportunity to let the world know about our festival, it is also our obligation to do everything we can to support musicians now and into the future. We fully intend to continue to present an array of great and famous names, but at the same time we will do everything we can to offer performance opportunities for young musicians. Our association with The Royal Academy of Music already provides that platform for some very fine young musicians from around the world
I must re-iterate that it is very much thanks to the support of our wonderful sponsors that allows us to present a festival of this calibre. Those sponsors consist of local families aswell as companies. As you might imagine, this festival is a year-round task, and so 2021 plans are well underway even before 2020 has taken place
The icing on the cake for this year’s festival will be if music and book lovers from Singapore tune into our concerts and talks!