Nicholas Snowman obituary

Arts administrator who founded the London Sinfonietta and led the Southbank Centre and Glyndebourne

At the heart of British musical life for over 30 years, Nicholas Snowman, who has died suddenly aged 78, will be remembered in this country not only for the three flagship organisations he headed – London Sinfonietta, the Southbank Centre and Glyndebourne – but also by countless cultural enterprises to which he gave his committed support.

Known as a quietly determined, even ruthless, administrator of radical persuasion, he energised the scene with his ambitious ideas but did not always succeed in carrying his colleagues and superiors with him and seemed happiest when able to repair to his beloved France, where he ran the Opéra National du Rhin in Strasbourg from 2002 to 2009.

The London Sinfonietta, which for many years was the country’s leading contemporary music group, was founded in 1968 by Snowman with the conductor David Atherton, both recent graduates of Cambridge University.

The masterstroke of including John Tavener’s sensationally outrageous dramatic cantata The Whale in their first concert made both composer and ensemble famous overnight. The Beatles wanted it for their Apple label and it was recorded with a phalanx of loudhailers, played by, among others, Snowman, his father and Ringo Starr.

The Sinfonietta had caught the zeitgeist and with its core group of around 16 players at the top of their game, shortly to be boosted by the collaboration of Pierre Boulez, they initiated an impressive catalogue of commissions from leading composers and in due course spawned new generations of ensembles similarly committed to contemporary music.

Snowman remained general manager of the Sinfonietta until 1972, when Boulez succeeded in luring him to Paris to be artistic director of IRCAM, the laboratory for new music located in the bowels of the Pompidou Centre.

He returned to Britain in 1986 to become general director (Arts) of the South Bank Centre (now Southbank Centre), taking over as chief executive from 1992 to 1998. In these years he ensured that contemporary music was at the centre of Southbank policy. So too was music theatre in various forms. A thrust stage was introduced in the Queen Elizabeth Hall with exposed theatrical lighting overhead, enabling the venue to host experimental stage work.

A number of visiting companies seized the opportunity but it was an enterprise under the name Opera Factory London Sinfonietta, bringing together David Freeman’s avant-garde opera company and Snowman’s own Sinfonietta, that was effectively the resident opera company in these years. A hugely popular and influential Così fan tutte in 1986, featuring a beach, bikinis and powerfully physical operatic acting, was followed by further successes, including a Maxwell Davies/Ligeti/Weill trilogy (1987), Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide (1987), Reimann’s Die Gespenstersonate (1989, run jointly with the Strindberg play on which it is based), and Don Giovanni (1990).

Nicholas Snowman in the Purcell Room at the South Bank.
Nicholas Snowman in the Purcell Room at the South Bank. Photograph: Jane Bown/The Guardian

Co-promotions with such enterprises as the Holland festival and the Théâtre du Châtelet lent the Southbank programme an international perspective. More controversial was Snowman’s handling of the issue of the single orchestral residency proposed by the Arts Council for the Royal Festival Hall, thereby depriving other orchestras of funding (the LPO, the Philharmonia and the centre were engaged in years of wrangling before the Arts Council backtracked on its plans); and of the £134m plan to redevelop the site, commissioned from the architect Terry Farrell, but ultimately abandoned.

Born in London to Kenneth Snowman, a jeweller, painter and chair of the family firm of antiques dealers Wartski, specialising in fine jewellery and silver (from whom Nicholas took over the company in 2002), and Sallie (nee Moghi-Levkine), he was educated at Highgate school and Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he studied English literature and founded the Cambridge University Opera Society. Following the IRCAM appointment, in the early 1970s he co-founded the Ensemble InterContemporain in Paris in conjunction with Boulez and Michel Guy, the French minister of culture.

The move to Glyndebourne as general director in 1998 augured well; his first job had been as assistant to the head of music staff, 1967-69, and Sir George Christie, Glyndebourne’s chair, had been a supportive founding chair of the Sinfonietta too. An ambitious 10-year artistic plan was initiated. The Glyndebourne Touring operation was brought under central control with the aim of integrating more experimental touring and main house productions.

Harrison Birtwistle’s The Last Supper had already been put in place by his predecessor, Anthony Whitworth-Jones, but Snowman lined up new works by Elliott Carter (What’s Next), Péter Eötvös (Angels in America) and Thomas Adès, plus a revival of Birtwistle’s Mask of Orpheus and less familiar repertory by Weber, Schumann and Schubert.

Not all these projects came to fruition, but Snowman was successful in expanding the repertory at Glyndebourne to include Verdi’s Otello and its first Wagner in the form of Tristan und Isolde.

He brought in directors such as David McVicar, Christof Loy and Richard Jones who could be relied upon to present stimulating, cutting-edge productions. As at the Southbank he retained artistic control – there was to be no director of productions – but he appointed Vladimir Jurowski as a forcefully engaged music director. Consolidating a year-round operation, he planned short seasons in Paris, a series of concerts at Glyndebourne and more community and educational work.

Barely two years into the job he resigned in 2000 and went to ground, revealing the truth only in 2004, in an interview in Opera magazine. He had misconceived the place, he said, and gone about things in the wrong way. Senior staff, forming what he called a “kitchen cabinet”, had gone behind his back to the board and threatened to leave if he were not shown the door.

Christie himself overruled some of his artistic plans: having lined up Simon Rattle to conduct Hippolyte et Aricie, Snowman was told: “We don’t do Rameau here, we do Handel.” Without quite admitting to the frequently voiced charge that his management skills were less than fully developed, he acknowledged that both at Glyndebourne and the Southbank he should have talked and listened more to colleagues.

He was a trustee of the New Berlioz Edition (the French composer was a passion of his), the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra, the Aurora Orchestra and the Keyboard Trust. Enjoying the greater autonomy in Strasbourg than at Glyndebourne, he was able to realise his Euryanthe ambition there (albeit in two concert performances), as well as staging Wagner’s Ring (directed by McVicar) and a Berlioz cycle culminating in Les Troyens. He was made OBE in 2014.

In 1983 he married Margo Rouard, a professor at the École Nationale Supérieur des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. She and their son, Hector, and granddaughter, Victoria, survive him.

• Michael Nicholas Snowman, arts administrator, born 18 March 1944; died 2 March 2023


Barry Millington

The GuardianTramp

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