Robert Ponsonby obituary

Arts director whose inspired programming enriched the Edinburgh festival and BBC Proms

Robert Ponsonby, who has died aged 92, was a highly influential figure in music administration, directing the Edinburgh festival from 1955 to 1960 and the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts (now the BBC Proms) from 1974 to 1986, during which period he also served as the controller of Radio 3.

Between those posts he acted as the general administrator of the Scottish National Orchestra (1964-72), while in later years he devoted his energies to a considerable number of musical institutions, notably the Musicians Benevolent Fund, the Young Concert Artists Trust, the Michael Tippett Musical Foundation and the Purcell school.

Highlights of his Edinburgh tenure included Maria Callas and the La Scala company in Bellini’s La Sonnambula; Birgit Nilsson (with Set Svanholm, Kerstin Meyer and Elisabeth Söderström) in Wagner’s Die Walküre; Britten conducting Britten and accompanying Peter Pears; Isaac Stern with Myra Hess; the young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Irmgard Seefried in lieder by Hugo Wolf; and Victoria de los Angeles in Falla’s La Vida Breve and in recitals with Gerald Moore. He also secured some fine theatrical performances, such as Christopher Plummer’s Henry V with the company of Stratford, Ontario.

On the lighter side, he brought to the festival the singer-comedian Anna Russell, Flanders and Swann and Beyond the Fringe. He later described the Edinburgh years as his “apprenticeship”, his learning curve encompassing handling great artists, dealing with foreign agencies and “uncomprehending bureaucrats”, not to mention the press. There were also the civic authorities to contend with and it was their “indifference, sometimes approaching hostility”, coupled with severe economic constraints, that precipitated his ultimate resignation.

Those pragmatic skills were to be tested further in his years at the BBC, an organisation he described as “my bread and butter (and sometimes jam) for 13 years”. One incident on his watch left a bitter taste, however: a strike by BBC musicians that resulted in the cancellation of 20 concerts in the 1980 season.

The corporation had proposed, on artistic as well as financial grounds, to disband five of its 11 full-time in-house ensembles, including the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. There was strong resistance from the music community, with a petition to parliament gathering half a million signatures. The BBCSSO was reprieved, though only five of the original ensembles remain today. Unhappy with the corporation’s handling of the affair, Ponsonby contemplated resigning, but was persuaded otherwise by Colin Davis.

Robert Ponsonby and BBC staff promoting the 1980 Proms.
Robert Ponsonby and BBC staff promoting the 1980 Proms. Photograph: Ian Tyas/Getty

There was also the ever-controversial issue of programming the Proms. As successor to William Glock, whose devotion to the avant garde was not to all tastes, Ponsonby endeavoured to steer a course between Glock’s rigorous modernism and English late Romantic composers, for which there was enthusiastic lobbying. His policy was to draw on the vastly expanding classical repertoire, not least with regard to contemporary British composers. These included Harrison Birtwistle, Simon Bainbridge, David Blake, Peter Maxwell Davies, Jonathan Harvey, Robin Holloway, Oliver Knussen, Nicholas Maw, Giles Swayne, Hugh Wood and many others. Inevitably there were still carpers, although no one could accuse Ponsonby of box-ticking: his programming, frequently inspired, was underpinned by wide experience and total integrity.

Born in Oxford, he was the older son of Noel Ponsonby, organist of Christ Church, and his wife, Mary (nee White-Thomson). He studied at Eton and then served in the Scots Guards (1945-47). From 1948 until 1950 he was organ scholar at Trinity College, Oxford, and took a degree in English literature. While at Oxford he was president of the university opera club and was involved in its 1950 production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, also taking the role of Masetto in its Don Giovanni under the baton of the youthful Davis.

At the start of 1951 he joined the staff of Glyndebourne opera, learning the craft from Moran Caplat and Ian Hunter, former assistants of Rudolf Bing. He remained Hunter’s assistant until 1955, describing him as “the most successful impresario of his generation”, before taking Hunter’s place as director of the Edinburgh festival.

His diplomatic skills were tested there on many occasions. He liked to tell the story of the conductor Otto Klemperer insisting on exchanging his hotel suite for a room in the spartan hostel where the orchestra were lodged in order to gain closer proximity to an attractive female player to whom he had taken a fancy. Ponsonby’s discreet solution, to which the maestro reluctantly agreed, was for Klemperer to sleep at his hotel but to be allowed to spend daylight hours at the hostel.

On leaving Edinburgh, Ponsonby spent two less than rewarding years with the Independent Television Authority (1962-64), moving gratefully from there to the Scottish National Orchestra at the invitation of the musical director, Alexander Gibson. Ponsonby said he learned most of what he knew about the psychology of orchestral musicians and their relationship with conductors from the SNO, and recalled his eight years in Glasgow as the most satisfying of his career.

On leaving the BBC, he became artistic director of the Canterbury festival (1987-88) and played an active role behind the scenes of British musical life as an adviser, programme consultant or trustee of numerous organisations.

In his book Musical Heroes (2009) he wrote informatively and entertainingly about individuals in the musical world (mostly conductors, composers and performers) he admired. An extended interview with Pierre Boulez, derived from one of the six programmes Ponsonby made for the BBC’s World Service, is particularly valuable for his penetrating observations and technical insights of the French conductor.

Ponsonby’s exceptional height of 6ft 6in, and a certain reserve, made him seem more remote than he was. The obituaries of leading musicians he wrote for this and other newspapers were well-informed and highly readable, while a keen sense of humour is evident in both Musical Heroes and a later collection that complements it, In and Out of Tune (2016).

He was married twice: to Una Kenny in 1957 and to Lesley Black in 1977. Both marriages ended in divorce.

• Robert Noel Ponsonby, arts administrator, born 19 December 1926; died 3 November 2019


Barry Millington

The GuardianTramp

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