Michael Tearle

Enthusiastic arts administrator
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The Independent Online

Widely credited as the man who put Cardiff on the international music map during his 12 years as Director of St David's Hall, Michael Tearle was among the last of Britain's leading arts administrators to have risen through the ranks of local government rather than being nurtured on a graduate-based, Arts Council-sponsored training scheme.

Michael Victor Tearle, arts administrator: born Paignton, Devon 24 September 1937; Deputy Director, Fairfield Halls, Croydon 1965-72, Director 1972-83; Director, St David's Hall, Cardiff 1983-96; married 1960 Sadie Bonstow (two daughters); died Lewes, East Sussex 15 October 2004.

Widely credited as the man who put Cardiff on the international music map during his 12 years as Director of St David's Hall, Michael Tearle was among the last of Britain's leading arts administrators to have risen through the ranks of local government rather than being nurtured on a graduate-based, Arts Council-sponsored training scheme.

Neither a populist nor a snob, Tearle was essentially an enthusiast, combining a tireless curiosity about all aspects of the arts with an instinct for quality and a generous desire to share it around. According to the conductor Tom Higgins, a regular collaborator,

He was an "entrepreneur" in the old sense of the word. He had an unerring sense of style about each thing he dealt with, whether it was opera, pantomime or a pop concert. He always knew exactly what to put before the public and how to put it before the public.

This knack was perhaps all the more valuable in that he had stumbled into the arts almost by accident.

Born in Paignton, Devon in 1937, Michael Tearle left school at 16 in order to support his newly-widowed mother. Seeking the long-term security then offered by a job in local government, he applied for a post in the Treasury Department of Paignton Urban District Council but, failing to get it, was pointed in the direction of the Entertainments Department. As a result, he spent the next few years helping to organise seaside entertainments - and occasionally setting out the deckchairs - on Paignton Pier.

Left with a love of piers and Punch & Judy shows, he would ideally have liked his career to progress along the South Coast to the larger seaside resorts of Bournemouth, Brighton, Eastbourne or Hastings. Instead he found himself on the inland spa-town circuit, becoming Deputy Entertainments Manager first in Buxton and then in Cheltenham Spa.

In 1965 Tearle joined the freshly-opened Fairfield Halls in Croydon as Deputy Director, being promoted to Director in 1972. He spent the next 11 years in charge of programming. Among his initiatives was the Croydon Arts Festival, launched in 1973 with a major new work by Sir Arthur Bliss, Master of the Queen's Music. He also programmed a new series of Saturday morning children's concerts as well as "Concerts for Commerce" in the early evening - both designed to bring in new audiences of all ages. Other projects included the New Croydon Community Theatre and the Fairfield Folk Festival.

Though staff came to dread the nights when Tearle sang with the Croydon Philharmonic Choir - a flood of memos invariably followed concerning burnt-out light bulbs in the balcony or other front-of-house lapses only visible from the stage - the predominant mood of his management was one of fun. Jim Lloyd, the presenter/producer of BBC Radio 2's long-running programme Folk on 2, wrote to Tearle just a few days before his death:

Of all the festivals I worked on over the years I think I enjoyed our annual event the most. It was such fun seeking out local talent like the Hungarian society, whose girls did that elegant dance with bottles on their heads. Then there were the school children who sang along with the Yetties, and of course the indefatigable Croydon Folk Song Club, and the Morris sides who danced in the foyer almost from dawn to dusk.

In 1983 Tearle was head-hunted to run the newly-opened St David's Hall in Cardiff, after its first director had quit, leaving a £1m loss in his wake. Though Tearle didn't always quite manage to balance the books himself - "These figures are awful," he once exclaimed at a finance meeting, "but we've had some smashing concerts" - he effectively turned the venue's fortunes around, thanks to his mix of charm, vision, professionalism and energy.

As Director, Tearle oversaw the year-round artistic programming for the concert hall and the New Theatre nearby. He was also instrumental in significantly raising the Hall's national and international profile with a series of new projects, which he either initiated personally or whole-heartedly embraced. These included the BBC's Cardiff Singer of the Word, first held in 1983 and now recognised as the most important opera competition in the world, the annual Welsh Proms concert series, founded in 1985, the World Harp festivals, from 1991, and the Cardiff Festival, which this summer celebrated its 18th anniversary.

According to David Owen Norris, the pianist and broadcaster whom Tearle appointed as artistic director of the Cardiff Festival,

It was always a pleasure to go to Cardiff for a meeting. He ran such a happy ship, and was always full of stories and news that oiled the wheels of the meetings, but never slowed them down. He had a masterly way of kindly discouraging contributions and ideas that were not really helpful!

Eventually, however, when a local government shake-up in 1996 effectively downgraded the post of Director to County Arts Officer, Tearle chose to take early retirement, moving to Lewes, East Sussex, to be closer to his elder daughter Katie (Head of Education at Glyndebourne) and her growing family.

Not that he ever really retired, immersing himself with characteristic ebullience in the social and artistic life of his adopted home. He was an active member of the town's Catholic community, sang with the Brighton Festival Chorus, and sat on the boards of a number of arts organisations. For the Lewes Festival he recently helped organise a performance of Mozart's Requiem at Glyndebourne Opera House, a fundraising event that will hopefully ensure the festival's future survival.

Mark Pappenheim

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