Obituary: Robert Ponsonby CBE, director of Edinburgh International Festival and Scottish National Orchestra chief

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Robert Noel Ponsonby, arts administrator. Born: 19 December 1926. Died: 3 November 2019. aged 92

Robert Ponsonby, who has died at the age of 92, spent the bulk of his professional life at the heart of the British music establishment. Two influential chapters took place in Scotland: his directorship of the Edinburgh International Festival from 1956 to 1960; and his eight years, from1964 to 1972, as general administrator of the Scottish National Orchestra (now Royal Scottish National Orchestra).

Ponsonby was born in Oxford in 1926, the son of Noel Ponsonby, organist of Christ Church Cathedral, and Mary White-Thomson, daughter of the Bishop of Ely.

A product of Eton, Oxford and the Scots Guards, and despite having gained only a third at Oxford after spending too much undergraduate time running the student opera society, he slipped easily into an administrative career that began in 1951 at Glyndebourne Opera, culminating at the BBC where, as controller of music, he held sway over Radio 3’s output and the London Proms.

It was through his Glyndebourne connection that Ponsonby was seduced northwards for his first Scots posting as Edinburgh Festival director. Both previous incumbents – inaugural director Rudoph Bing and Scots-born Ian Hunter – were also ex-Glyndebourne, from where Ponsonby, as general secretary, had acted simultaneously as Hunter’s Edinburgh assistant before succeeding him in 1956.

Ponsonby’s stewardship at Edinburgh was one generally defined by safety and quality, though not at the complete expense of cultural adventure. He was, after all, the first director to break the famine of commissions from Scottish composers when he invited Iain Hamilton to write a major new work to mark the 1959 Robert Burns bicentenary.

That the co-commissioners, The Burns Federation, found the resulting SNO premiere of Hamilton’s Sinfonia for Two Orchestras “rotten and ghastly” is more a reflection of ill-informed expectations on their part than critical veracity.

Ponsonby, in one of his two published memoirs – Musical Heroes (2009) – admitted that Hamilton’s harsh modernism had left the Festival audience “slightly stunned”.

When former Scotsman critic Conrad Wilson recalled that event for a 2007 feature on the Top 20 Scottish Classical Events of all time, he referred to that Festival performance as “one of the very few and rare times that a classical music story ever hit the front pages of the popular press in the UK”.

More obviously treasured was Ponsonby’s ambitious opera programming which, besides appearances by Maria Callas and Birgit Nilsson, brought to the Festival Stuttgart Opera’s production of Weber’s then rarely staged Euryanthe, and Swedish composer Karl-Birger Blondahl’s futuristic sci-fi opera Aniara.

Ponsonby will forever be remembered, of course, as the director who encouraged Alan Bennett, Peter Cooke, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore to create the satirical review called Beyond the Fringe for his final Festival in 1960. Comedy history was made. He left Edinburgh, more disheartened by Festival politics than the job itself, writing later that “the parsimonious city fathers were wearyingly slow to provide performance facilities worthy of 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.”

After a brief and frustrating stay in America, Ponsonby returned to a London desk job at ITV, where he was responsible for ensuring that “sufficient minority-interest material” got televised by the commercial broadcaster.

It was not the creative opportunity he had hoped for, but another opening in Scotland was about to turn his fortunes around.

The knight in shining armour was Sir Alexander Gibson, then five years into his legendary conductorship and musical transformation of the SNO. Gibson was dispatched by his chairman to approach Ponsonby about returning to Scotland to “run the SNO with me”. His answer was an unequivocal yes.

That was 1964, and the SNO was still rehabilitating itself after the destruction by fire two years previously of Glasgow’s St Andrew’s Hall. Together, Ponsonby and Gibson set about revitalising the winter seasons, notably with thematic focusses on individual composers – chief among them Schubert, Schumann, Dvorak and Mahler, soon to be joined by a riskier Henze cycle.

Ponsonby’s regimental background came to the fore when the orchestra embarked on its first foreign tours. The Scotsman’s music critic, reporting on the 1967 European tour, described Ponsonby’s planning approach as deeply military. “Before setting off each morning, the players stood by their buses as if on parade. The day’s orders were announced. On one occasion, high in the Austrian Alps, someone nearly found himself on a charge for leaving – as Ponsonby said before departure next morning – his boots on the bed.”

Ponsonby left the SNO in good shape in 1972 to succeed Sir William Glock as controller of music at the BBC in London, a post that placed him in complete charge of the station’s classical music output and of the BBC Proms seasons, and which he held up to his retirement in 1985.

He took flak over the corporation’s controversial plans in 1980 to disband five of its orchestras, including the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, which culminated in the famous musicians’ strike and resulted in the cancellation of the 1980 London Proms season. The BBC SSO survived, but at fatal cost to the Scottish Radio Orchestra, which was disbanded in its place.

Ponsonby referred to the episode as a “hurricane” on “a voyage not without storms”. At one point he considered resigning over the matter. Ever the diplomat, he rode out the situation stoically. One former SSO player prominently involved in the dispute recalls Ponsonby as “being very clever, and keeping well out of it”.

Retirement didn’t come immediately after leaving the BBC. Ponsonby spent a brief period running the Canterbury Festival, before devoting his energies to supporting musical institutions, notably the charitable Musician’s Benevolent Fund. He was made a CBE in 1985

He wed twice, first to dancer Una Kenny in 1957, then in 1977 to Lesley Black. Both marriages ended in divorce.