Arts administrator and former director of the Edinburgh Festival

Born: December 19, 1926;

Died: November 3, 2019

ROBERT Ponsonby, who has died aged 92, was a pillar of the British arts establishment in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London for more than half a century. As a one-time director of the Edinburgh Festival, general administrator of the Scottish National Orchestra and the BBC’s London-based controller of music, he achieved a remarkable cultural hat trick, even if, in his later but still active years, he increasingly seemed a name from the past.

But his past was nothing if not distinguished. A patrician product of Eton, Trinity College, Oxford, and the Brigade of Guards, he was born in Oxford and was the son of Noel Ponsonby, organist of Christ Church Cathedral. His personality could be suavely managerial, charming and prickly in equal measure.

With a family history reputedly stretching back to the battle of Waterloo, he was a member of the august Glyndebourne brigade who ran the Edinburgh Festival in its first years, serving as assistant director to the recently demobbed Colonel Ian Hunter until, in 1956, his moment came and he was appointed Hunter’s successor.

Like all the directors until the 1970s, he operated from the festival’s secluded London premises in St James’s Street, round the corner from the Ritz, from where he and his tiny staff moved discreetly to Edinburgh each August just in time for the opening concert, shunning publicity as we now know it, and employing a single part-time (and much loved) local press officer, his pockets stuffed with free tickets for needy journalists.

Ponsonby, while not exactly an invisible man (being, at full stretch, about six-and-a-half feet tall, invisibility would have been difficult), presided over events with an air of lofty calm, even when hell was erupting around him, as it did when there were religious complaints about Sir Thomas Beecham’s plan to open the festival one year with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at the Usher Hall. Such an act, declared the Free Church of Scotland, would be a disgraceful display of popery if it was permitted to happen. Whatever Beethoven’s views might have been on the matter, Ponsonby and Beecham backed down and presented the Ninth Symphony, hardly a Beecham priority, in its place.

Yet although Ponsonby’s festivals were conspicuously conservative (unlike his successor Lord Harewood he assiduously sidestepped scandal) they nevertheless found space for the occasional shock. From Stockholm he imported Blomdahl’s modern space opera, Aniara, and Scotland itself was the source of Iain Hamilton’s Sinfonia for Two Orchestras, the first sample of real modernity ever performed in Edinburgh, commissioned by the Robert Burns Foundation for the bicentenary of the poet’s birth and performed by the SNO with the newly-appointed Alexander Gibson as conductor. The federation’s feelings about this sample of abrasive abstractionism were not concealed. Calling it a “rotten and ghastly” tribute to a poet who liked tunes, the president balefully announced that Hamilton’s fee - “a good one” - would be reconsidered at the annual conference in Ayr.

It was also Ponsonby, we should remember, who established Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as the glorious perpetrators of Beyond the Fringe, even although the fringe itself, at that time, was no more than a tiny cloud in the official festival’s sky. But it was a disastrous historical drama, Jonathan Griffin’s The Hidden King, presented at the Assembly Hall almost every night for three weeks, which was probably Ponsonby’s undoing and brought about his resignation in 1960.

By 1965, however, he was back in Scotland, this time in Glasgow (“I thought it a bit uncouth,” he reported) as administrator of the SNO. Steering the orchestra through its first great European tour, he paraded the players in front of the buses each morning before delivering the day’s orders, asking on one memorable occasion, “Who’s left his boots on his bed?”

Not that, with Gibson as conductor, could it be said that Ponsonby was permitted to play completely safe. Despite the absence of Scottish music from the European tour, Hans Werner Henze’s symphonies were an annual feature of the Ponsonby years and Christoph Eschenbach was soloist in the German composer’s massive Piano Concerto No 2. The summer proms, on the other hand, were almost entirely risk-free.

In 1972 he became the BBC’s controller of music and faced the reality of Pierre Boulez’s presence as conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London. Though Ponsonby’s predecessor, the fearless William Glock, was a hard act to follow, Ponsonby survived the ordeal with distinction, proving that he had the capacity to champion Boulez the way he had once championed Iain Hamilton.

When, in 1985, he reached the BBC’s official retirement age, he ran the Canterbury Festival for two years and involved himself with a number of musical charities. He was a trustee of the Choirbook Trust, was made a CBE, and wrote his memoirs under the title of Musical Heroes.