A Short Story on the Founding of the Festival  by Ken Morrow 

The house lights dim. Stage lights focus thin, yellow beams center stage. Four musicians stride in, face out into the darkened hall, bow respectfully, settle into chairs, straighten music stands, open scores, fine tune strings. Their eyes center, a head gestures, and the music…the music…

 

But how is it we are here? How have we come to sit, every year in August for the past 40 years, in this rough, 19th Century concert hall on an ordinary street corner in a small Mexican mountain town to listen to some of the world’s greatest music performed by some of the world’s greatest musicians? Cultural institutions such as chamber music festivals do not appear fully formed onto this or any other stage. Behind an evening such as this stand vision, commitment, dedication, hard work, talent, money—lots of money—and generous dollops of serendipity. Whose vision was it? What pieces needed to be fit together to realize that vision? Who saw the big picture in all those small pieces spread out like a puzzle on a table? How was line aligned with line, pattern with pattern, to fit those pieces together? And who did all that hard work?

Let’s begin with the serendipity part, with the arrival in San Miguel in 1966 of James Henry “Tom” Sawyer, retired radio executive, disc-jockey, news-caster, and lapsed amateur violinist from Orlando, Florida. “Tom,” Sawyer’s catchy radio handle attached to his charismatic character and red-haired resemblance to the Mark Twain character, soon met and befriended long-time San Miguel expat, Leonard Brooks, renowned Canadian painter, serious violinist, and local arts catalyst since his arrival in 1947. Leonard was hosting a regular-as-possible, ever-changing, pick-up-group of amateur string players for informal chamber music jam sessions in his home on Calle Quebrada. Among the regulars at Leonard’s home were Ken Harvey, professional music teacher, band leader, and fine violist from California, and Michael Bancroft, Canadian barrister and amateur cellist, both of whom had arrived in San Miguel around 1970. Learning of Tom’s estrangement from his violin, and always anxious to expand their pool of players, Leonard and Ken persuaded Tom to reconcile with his instrument and join their group.

In the summer of 1971, Michael, a late-comer to the cello and anxious to keep pace with his more experienced quartet-mates, attended a small chamber music festival and workshop at Langton Matravers, a village on the Isle of Purbeck, off the south coast of England. The following summer he persuaded Tom to join him, and during that outing, probably over stouts at a local pub after a long hard day of scales and exercises, Tom is said to have remarked to Michael something like: If this little town can host a music festival, why can’t San Miguel?

And, indeed, why couldn’t San Miguel? In 1962, the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes had established its first outpost beyond Mexico City in the converted ex-convent of Las Monjas in San Miguel. Its director, Miguel Malo, local doctor, teacher and amateur archeologist, had asked Leonard, who had been teaching music to Mexican children on Saturdays at his home for several years, to move his classes to the burgeoning art school and be director of his | its newly established music department.

By the early seventies, San Miguel could rightfully boast of its two concert halls, a year-round cultural calendar including symphony, chamber, and recital concerts in both classical and Baroque genres, jazz and popular music concerts, dramatic theatre and children’s theatre productions, folk and modern dance recitals, as well as its already vibrant painting and sculpture community.

 

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, the growing popularity of San Miguel as a cultural destination had led several well-known American and Canadian music professionals to establish vacation outposts in San Miguel. Among them was cellist George Sopkin of Chicago’s Fine Arts Quartet who shared a house here with Chicago friends, Albert and Eleanor Martin, and who was known to occasionally sit in at Leonard’s musical soirees.

There were, in fact, already whispers and gentle rumblings over coffee and cocktails in the expat community about interest in serious music presentations in San Miguel, and George’s friend, Eleanor Martin, founding board member of both the Fine Arts Music Foundation and the Music Center of the North Shore of Chicago, had already hosted the Fine Arts Quartet to play an ad-lib concert or two in town in the mid-1960s.

Finally, when Miguel Malo passed away in 1972, his Public Relations assistant, Carmen Masip de Hawkins, was appointed to succeed him as director of Bellas Artes. From her work there and several years of presenting concerts and theatre productions prior, Carmen was well-connected in the San Miguel cultural community, as well as with the art institution’s Mexico City operations. She had also revived the dormant Teatro Angela Peralta after several years of disuse in the mid-1960s and continued to have friendships there. And she spoke excellent English, allowing easy communication with the expat community. By the middle of the 1970s the pieces of the puzzle were laid out on the table. All that was left was to fit the appropriate tabs into the appropriate slots.

So now imagine the gregarious Tom Sawyer, returned from his summer at the Purbeck Music Festival, talking up the idea of a look-alike festival in San Miguel with his fellow musicians. Imagine his infectious enthusiasm arousing in Leonard, Ken, Michael and those others whispering over coffee and cocktails, a belief in its latent possibility; Tom and Leonard prevailing on Eleanor Martin to cajole George Sopkin and the Fine Arts Quartet to come to town to play again, this time in a real festival; Eleanor corralling a handful of patrons to finance the expenses for the Quartet to play three concerts; Michael applying his barrister skills to negotiate and prepare the requisite legal documents; Tom, Leonard, and Ken enlisting a group of volunteer to do the necessary pencil and leg work to get the pieces of the puzzle to align.

Imagine Leonard Brooks introducing Tom and his chamber festival idea to Carmen Masip in the sun-drenched cloister garden at Bellas Artes. Imagine Carmen marshalling Leonard’s motley crew, Eleanor Martin, and volunteers Xavier Barbosa, Victor Sandoval, and Jules Roskin into an actual organizing committee; Carmen pulling the necessary strings, aligning the necessary stars, to secure the Teatro Angela Peralta as venue for the performances; arranging with Mexico City for the Bellas Artes Chamber Orchestra to make the trip to San Miguel to present one additional concert.

And there we have it, the puzzle assembled, all the appropriate pieces aligned in their appropriate places, Tom Sawyer’s bright idea slotted into Carmen Masip’s boundless resources, a fledgling musical venture arranged and mounted on a small stage in a Colonial village in central Mexico—the first Festival de Musica de Camara de San Miguel de Allende—in June 1979. And here we are, 40 years later, settled into our seats, waiting for the house lights to dim, the stage lights to rise; waiting for the musicians to stride onstage, face out into the darkened hall, and acknowledge our applause.

 

"My thanks to Carol Lotspiech, daughter of Tom Sawyer, Hiliry Harvey, daughter of Ken Harvey, Paula Greene, daughter of Michael Bancroft, for their memories; Nina Martino, Barbara Porter, Russ Archibald, and Mai Onno for Festival records and personal recollections; Paulina Hawkins, daughter of Carmen Masip de Hawkins, for her essay about her mother; Helenmarie Corcoran and Daniela Ahlenius for access to records in the Festival office; and to John Virtue for his biography, “Leonard & Reva Brooks, Artists in Exile in San Miguel.” Ken Morrow

 

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Festival Office: 2nd Floor inside Bellas Artes, Hernández Macías # 75, San Miguel de Allende, Tel (415) 154 5141

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