Interview: Robert Ponsonby - A life among the stars

ROBERT Ponsonby's newly published memoirs, Musical Heroes, are not so much a self-promotional nostalgia trip as a generous testament to the many classical music celebrities he has encountered over half a century as one of the UK's leading arts supremos.

At the core of this book are generous personal reflections on family friend Sir Adrian Boult, the irascible Sir William Walton, such legendary performers and composers as Jacqueline du Pr (photographed informally in his Glasgow flat with Daniel Barenboim and former SNO leader Sam Bor playing piano trios), Yehudi Menuhin, John Ogden, Pierre Boulez, Michael Tippett and many more.

Now in his eighties, Ponsonby has been described as "quiet" and "patrician" over the course of a privileged life that took him from Eton, Oxford and the Scots Guards to top administrative posts at the Edinburgh Festival, the (now Royal) Scottish National Orchestra and finally as Controller Music at the BBC.

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All that, and his early professional grooming at Glyndebourne, meant that Ponsonby has been in among the action all his working life – controversially at the BBC (it was during his watch that the corporation attempted in 1980 to disband five orchestras, including the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra); but more memorably for us Scots as a quietly inspirational architect of the early developing years of the Edinburgh Festival, which he directed from 1956 to 1960, and of the SNO, where he struck up an industrious partnership with Sir Alexander Gibson as chief executive between 1964 and 1972.

That he felt an affinity with Scotland is evident in his affectionate chapters on Gibson and composers Han Gl, Iain Hamilton and Robin Orr.

Of the BBC episode, however, and its culmination in the infamous musicians' strike that led to the cancellation of much of the 1980 London Proms season, there is surprisingly little reference, other than Ponsonby's brief depiction of it as a "hurricane" on a "voyage not without storms". As one former SSO musician involved in the dispute recently reminded me: "Ponsonby was clever; he kept well out of it."

Except, of course, when he was forced to intervene. At the 1957 Edinburgh Festival, the conductor Otto Klemperer asked to exchange his plush hotel room for a cheap hostel where a pretty member of his orchestra on whom he had amorous designs was staying. Ponsonby opposed the move – based presumably on a 1950s sense of propriety – and after some "fierce words" a compromise was reached allowing the conductor to spend daylight hours at the hostel, but return to his own hotel at night.

More publicly, the Free Church of Scotland was up in arms over a planned Festival opening performance in 1956 of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis – a Catholic mass on a Sunday! – which was to be attended by the Queen (how often does royalty visit the Festival these days?). The Festival capitulated, replacing the offending work with the same composer's Choral symphony, although Ponsonby laughed quietly the following day when the Times rightly identified the replacement as "a pagan work".

His directorship of the Festival may have lasted only five years, but one thing this book clearly (if perhaps unconsciously) emphasises is the extent to which it was effectively governed over its first 14 years by a powerful dynasty whose common roots were the outward-looking, quality-driven aspirations of Glyndebourne established by the redoubtable Rudolph Bing. Ponsonby, whose reign was the culmination of the dynasty, traces the seeds of that permeating influence to a Glyndebourne opera production that visited Edinburgh in 1940.

He writes: "One night in Edinburgh after the show, Mildmay (the singer Audrey Mildmay] and Bing walked from the King's Theatre to the Caledonian Hotel. The castle was moonlit and one of them – perhaps recalling Salzburg – remarked that Edinburgh had the makings of an international festival city. The seed took root, and in 1945 a Glyndebourne delegation went to Edinburgh and, not without difficulty, sold the idea to the city fathers."

The rest is history. The Glyndebourne ethos was adopted; Bing became the new Festival's first director in 1947, followed by his Glyndebourne successor, Scots-born Ian Hunter. Ponsonby, now also working at Glyndebourne, acted simultaneously as Hunter's Edinburgh assistant, before acceding to the top job in 1956.

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There's an interesting dilemma there. On the one hand, who could refute the powerful sense of continuity and single-minded vision that this essentially foreign line of succession impressed upon the evolution of the Festival? But is there not a sense, too, that what Bing and his initiates were basically doing was to expand the Glyndebourne franchise in all but name? There's nothing essentially wrong with that, given the undoubted benefits Edinburgh has reaped for over six decades.

And let's not forget that it was Ponsonby who broke the non-Scottish trend by commissioning a major new work in 1959 from Scots composer Iain Hamilton to mark the Burns bicentenary. The fact that the Burns Federation, which co-commissioned the work, found it "rotten and ghastly", and that Hamilton's hard-going Sinfonia for Two Orchestras (performed by the SNO under Gibson) left the Festival audience "slightly stunned", is beside the point. But perhaps the lingering unease that still exists, philosophically and politically, between various factions of the city and the International Festival goes back to origins that were essentially an act of cultural, if not imperial, conquest.

Ponsonby talks of issues during his tenure that could equally apply today: that "the parsimonious city fathers were wearyingly slow to provide performance facilities worthy of the international artists"; and that "civic subsidy was barely adequate, so that – later – two directors, I in 1960, John Drummond in 1983, resigned because we could no longer live with the financial pinch or the indifference, sometimes approaching hostility."

Despite that, he was the man who encouraged four young men – Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore – to mount a satirical revue called Beyond the Fringe in his final 1960 Festival. For that alone, he was surely worth his weight in gold.

• Musical Heroes, by Robert Ponsonby, is published by Giles de la Mare at 14.99.

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