Sir Ian Hunter

Sir Ian Hunter, Edinburgh Festival director, 1950-55

Born: 2 April, 1919, in Edinburgh Died: 5 September, 2003, in London, aged 84

IAN Hunter was an impresario of the old school. Cultured, articulate and of a military bearing, he invariably wore a dapper, double-breasted suit and always carried a rolled-up umbrella. With a confident stride, he was often spotted making his way through Covent Garden to the Garrick Club for lunch.

He was associated with some of the most important arts organisations in the country and not only managed great artists, when he ran the Harold Holt agency, but was also the man everyone sent for when festivals had to set up, or saved.

He took over the Edinburgh Festival after its initial, hugely successful first few years. He consolidated that success and moved it towards newer, more contemporary pastures. He was an affable, pleasant man, and once, at a Festival dinner, I had the audacity to ask him: "What are the qualities one needs to run the Edinburgh Festival?" Hunter, without a blink, replied: "A reliable and good address book and, as far as Edinburgh is concerned, an ability to locate the best smoked salmon and lobster for after-performance suppers." He was always modest, and invariably practical.

Ian Bruce Hope Hunter went to Fettes, then studied music under Fritz Busch in Germany; he remained with the conductor when he fled to the UK in 1936.

Hunter acted as assistant to Rudolf Bing in the first years at Glyndebourne, but war intervened and he served with the army, being demobbed with the rank of colonel. He immediately returned to Glyndebourne, and when Bing became the artistic director of Edinburgh, Hunter became his assistant at both organisations. It was a huge undertaking and his skills as an administrator were much tested. The fact that both got off to a flying post-war start - both artistically and administratively - was largely thanks to him.

Hunter, a man with a ready smile and a well-honed sense of humour, was not above having a wee Festival joke. He and Moran Caplat, of Glyndebourne, used to write an anonymous diary in the Edinburgh Evening News which gossiped away with much irreverence about Festival events and personalities.

Then, in 1949, Bing was offered the Metropolitan Opera in New York and Hunter took over in Edinburgh. His first year was almost a disaster. Covent Garden had agreed to give the world premire of Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress at the King’s, but it had to be scrapped when it wasn’t ready. Instead, Hunter engaged Glyndebourne, who promptly produced one of their epic seasons: Araaidne auf Naxos, under Beecham, and Figaro, with a stellar cast led by Sena Jurinac and George London.

Hunter’s diplomacy was needed when the La Scala Orchestra was considered by its conductor, Victor de Sabata, "not up to Festival standard" for a piece of Brahms and rather grandly changed the published programme. Victoria de los Angeles, the soprano, arrived having learned the original programme. With masterly tact, Hunter spun a line about "not compromising standards" and the incident soon blew over.

The Festival also had the Citizens Theatre from Glasgow and the American Ballet Theatre who made a (then) rare appearance in Europe. Hunter decided to end the Festival in sparkling fashion and arranged a massed military band concert on the Castle Esplanade as fireworks went off everywhere. He even persuaded Beecham to conduct the concert. The maestro, ever the showman, arrived at the Castle in ebullient form ... and wearing a hard hat!

In 1951, Hunter was keen to broaden the Festival’s scope. He increased the importance of the morning chamber concerts at the Freemason’s Hall with a collection of Schubert songs. But his coup was to engage the New York Philharmonic under Dimitri Mitropoulos and Bruno Walter. Hunter arranged for the Edinburgh Police pipe band to greet the orchestra at Waverley and the skirl of the pipes amused (and greatly confused) the New Yorkers. Such was their success, the band was there to bid them farewell and Hunter led a chorus of Will Ye No Come Back Again.

In 1952, Glyndebourne (under Fritz Busch) were again in residence but Hunter had to cope with another London cancellation: this time Sadler’s Wells Opera’s planned world premiere of Billy Budd. For theatre, he bravely mounted that complex Scottish drama The Thrie Estaites, with a remarkable cast of Scottish actors.

Hunter then faced some funding worries and his bravest decision - which caused consternation at the time, with endless correspondence in The Scotsman - was to engage a foreign opera company, thus breaking the link with Glyndebourne. Hamburg State Opera were a huge success and amply repaid his confidence. The soprano Lisa della Casa lit up the King’s Theatre and when she fell ill, Hunter sent out search parties in the Highlands to find her understudy who was taking a few days off. Hunter arranged for the company’s singers to visit the Royal Victoria Hospital and sing a few arias, thus starting another Festival tradition.

Hunter was always keen to broaden the Festival’s base. The Old Vic staged a stirring Hamlet, starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom; the French star Edwige Feuillere performed La Dame aux Camellias with its stunning death scene; American Ballet returned; Fonteyn was at the Empire with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, and Moira Shearer and Robert Helpmann performed The Soldier’s Tale in a Gunther Rennet production at the King’s.

A major difference from the current Festival was Hunter’s encouragement of the visual arts. He borrowed major works from museums and mounted exhibitions devoted to Degas, Rembrandt, Renoir, Czanne and Gaughin. A seminal exhibition devoted to the legacy of Diaghilev was mounted by Richard Buckle at the National Gallery of Scotland. Hunter’s sheer imagination and flair won the Festival international respect and when the Diaghilev transferred to London, it was a smash hit.

Hunter, by inviting these renowned foreign companies and artists, made the Festival truly international.

At the end of the 1953 event, Hunter told the Festival Council that he had been offered the post of director of the London agency Harold Holt. After a somewhat protracted correspondence, it was felt that to hold a commercial post and run the Festival could lead to artistic problems. Worse, there was a deficit after the 1954 Festival and a year later Hunter handed over to his assistant, Robert Ponsonby. Mark you, he knew how to bid farewell: Guilini making his Festival debut (conducting Falstaff), the return of the New York Philharmonic, the world premiere of a Thornton Wilder play and the Royal Danish Ballet.

He had guided and matured the Festival into a highly professional and prestigious event. By his charm and inspired programming, he had ensured the participation of great artists, but it was his skill and flair that made it all happen.

Hunter returned to London and ran Harold Holt with a deft touch. He managed the careers of some of the great artists - Barenboim, Guilini, Menhuin, du Pr; the list was endless - and started involving the company in some major arts festivals.

Hunter ran both Bath and Brighton at one stage, then the Hong Kong and City of London festivals. Of course, they were outlets for his artists but he was always keen to involve other agents’ singers and was devoted to casting young singers and soloists. He sat on numerous Arts Council committees and on the boards of English National Ballet and the Chichester Theatre. He was the founder of the Young Concert Artists Trust and a member of the Musicians Benevolent Fund.

Many honours came his way. He was knighted in 1983 and received several honorary doctorates. He retired from Harold Holt in 1988 and spent much of his latter years happily with his grandchildren and toiling in his garden in Sussex. For many years, the London agency of Lies Askonas had been a friendly rival. Askonas and Hunter had got to know each other well during those days at Edinburgh, so it would have given them much pleasure to learn that, a decade after they left, their firms merged into Askonas Holt.

Hunter married twice. His first wife, Susan Russell, died in 1977, and in 1984 he married Sadie Golden. He is survived by four daughters from his first marriage.

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