Petworth Festival welcomed Mr. James’ Garden

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Poster image by Mexican artist Patrick Pettersson

There is no better way to describe the results of the multidisciplinary event Mr. James’ Garden than to quote from a letter written to all the participants by Stewart Collins, the Director of the Henley and Petworth Festivals and recent winner of a national award for the most successful festival director in the UK. 

…“It was clearly a very complex project to bring together both from your end and from the twin Henley/Petworth perspectives but as with almost all hybrid events, the effort ultimately pays off and from my perspective it was a real highlight in a career that has happily had a good number of highlights.

Henley was of course very much a half-way house, but for that audience a flavour was created that is central to the joy of that particular event, but once transferred to Petworth it was well nigh perfect and an unadorned success. We were all very sad to get to the end on Thursday evening”….

These were indeed gratifying words to receive at the end of the first stage of this unusual production, which began its performance life at the Casa del Lago in the D.F. in April, and finished in the glorious surroundings of Bignor Park near Petworth, the home of Lord and Lady Mersey. It was here that the true essence of the programme became magical, both for the performers and spectators alike. In the words of one member of our audience:

“Just the right amount of edge mixed with the wacky and the wonderful. I think a few members of the audience were struggling, but that made it even more endearing and all the more authentically surreal. All that music, beautifully played, plus the glorious setting and the ambient sounds of the countryside settling down after a long hot day made for a genuinely magical event.”

We were indeed blessed by the weather during the whole two week trajectory of performances here in the UK: long hot summer days and cool, balmy evenings. For the audience it was unusual, to say the least, to find the Irene Dubrovsky’s “Wave” and a concert piano in the middle of a walled garden full of glorious blooms, so typical to all the historic gardens of England.

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Following the presentation of Ann Martin-Davis, who interpreted music of Debussy and Martin on the piano, the public picked up their assorted picnic chairs and walked to the front of Bignor Hall, facing onto a spectacular view of the South Downs, where they found Angel Padilla Crespo, dramatically attired in a Mexican poncho, seated under an enormous Royal Oak tree with his harp, surrounded by a circle of flaming torches and Manolo Cocho’s “Earth” mobile above his head. In this space the public either sat or lay on the grass listening to the exciting “Son a Tamayo” by Arturo Marquez while the sun slowly disappeared over the horizon.

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The grand finale with mezzosoprano Sue Legg, accompanied by Ann Martin Davis on the piano, was performed, rather surprisingly in the middle of the old stable yard with Patrick Pettersson’s dramatic work depicting birds in flight through a dense tropical undergrowth adorning one wall. The work was beautifully illuminated by the setting sun and strategically placed low spotlights which brought the red and gold colours into vibrant life.

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We are now planning the next stage of Mr. James’s Garden, which was so generously and aptly sponsored by the Pedro y Elena Hernandez Foundation and will include performances in San Luis Potosí and in Las Posas, Xilitla. This will be a delight to look forward to.

We thank our sponsors for their invaluable support, without which we would not have been able to realise this project, most particularly the Pedro y Elena Hernandez Foundation, Tuscor Lloyds, Holywell Music Limited, Conaculta and British Airways.

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Mr. James’ Garden at Henley Festival

Mr. James’ Garden, a delightful show of Mexican installation art and promenade concert, began its life in the UK at the spectacular British summer event the Henley Festival.

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Mexican harpist, Angel Padilla Crespo.

Henley, a beautiful and historic town, nestling in the hollow of the great River Thames, is host every year to the Henley regatta, commonly known amongst us Brits as the last of the great annual sporting events of the summer – the others being the Derby, Royal Ascot and Wimbledon in May, June and July respectively. I hasten to add that we do not forget about The Ashes, which follow quickly on and mark the end of the summer season. People attend the Henley regatta in all their finery, donning their ancient rowing or university blazers, boaters and in the case of the women, whatever they like, to laze and drink and socialize on the banks of the Thames, while the contestants carry their skiffs to the water and provide the sporting entertainment.

Once the regatta is done, the champagne and strawberries consumed, the Henley Festival begins. The event, which is celebrating its 20 or some years, conveniently occupies the same tents, marquees and wooden plank walkways which are constructed for the regatta, with the small addition of an enormous open air stage, backing onto the river with seating for 5000 people. The festivities begin at 6.00 in the evening in the traditional English way the attendees arrive in their finest – dinner jackets and any sort of quirky dress you can imagine for the ladies – and spread out their picnics in the car park. This is done in all weathers, rain or shine. Happily for us, on the night of the premier of Mr. James’ Garden the sun was shining, prettily illuminating the glittering event, despite a force 8 gale creating gusty wind tunnels through the acres of taught canvas and bunting.

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Chessmen at Henley Festival

The Mexican artwork, produced by the well-known artists Irene Dubrovsky (The Wave), Manolo Cocho (Earth) and Patrick Pettersson (El Jardin de la Vida: Flora y fauna), was set up in a garden of contemporary sculpture in the main walkway leading down to the main stage area with the piano and harp placed in the centre. Our musicians, Ann Martin Davis (piano), Angel Padilla Crespo (harp) and Susan Legg (mezzo soprano) gave a robust performance in the most surreal circumstances, which was perhaps fitting when considering the title of the production – Mr. James’s Garden. The scores had to be held physically to the music stands by a valiant volunteer to avoid them taking off in the gusting wind. The volunteer, who did not read music, was asked to “hang on to the music but not to touch the part with black dots on it, or the musician would be in dire trouble”. Boats and barges passed behind them on the river, filled will noisy revelers who sounded their horns if they had them. Strangely comic figures wandered through the garden in the middle of the performance two dressed as chessmen from the Tales of Alice in Wonderland, three transvestite grannies screeched past on their mobile granny scooters, looking a little like Dame Edna Everage, and finally three gentleman on hobby horses resembling master of hounds and whippers-in, galloped into the middle of the garden reducing our soprano to helpless giggles and rendering her incapable of emitting a note.

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Pianist Ann Martin Davis

A good time was had by all and the director of the Henley Festival, Stewart Collins, was “enchanted”. At the end of the evening there was a superb performance by the reconstructed Beach Boys, to the considerable glee of all the 60 and 70 year old ladies and gents, and was followed by a grand firework display over the water.

Mr. James’s Garden has similarly flourished during the five days of the festival, with average audiences of 5,000 each night.

We thank our sponsors for their invaluable support, without which we would not have been able to realise this project, most particularly the Pedro y Elena Hernandez Foundation, Tuscor Lloyds, Holywell Music Limited, Conaculta and British Airways.