Obituary: Peter Diamand
Wednesday 21 January 1998
Peter Diamand was one of the 20th century's most effective art patrons and the personification of the Edinburgh Festival in the years 1965 to 1978, when he directed it with a far-sighted, wide- ranging view of what the world of culture had to offer Edinburgh.
An Austrian born and educated in Berlin, where he studied law, he was obliged to flee from Nazi Germany in the early 1930s, and found work in Amsterdam with Artur Schnabel, then one of the world's most famous pianists. During the Second World War he survived a Dutch concentration camp, and went on to play his role as an arts administrator in Amsterdam.
Like the Edinburgh Festival's first director, Sir Rudolf Bing, Diamand was imbued with the spirit of those who wished to see post-war Europe revitalised by its cultural heritage. Without his firm and fearless control of the festival, it might not have survived the long period of testing it endured from a hostile tabloid press, and insensitive bureaucracy including a festival council dominated by town councillors with little experience of the arts.
Diamand's predecessor, the Earl of Harewood, had given the festival a sense of new beginnings, but the four years of his directorship, 1961- 65, had been fraught with trials and tribulations. When Diamand appeared there was an atmosphere of doubt and despondency among those who wished to see the festival accept the challenge of the Sixties.
The festival's committee had chosen Diamand as the most experienced arts administrator in Europe. He inherited the festival in its 18th year, still a fledgling institution with woefully inadequate finances, and he left it a robust 31-year-old, an inspiration to his successor John Drummond.
"The inside story of 50 Edinburgh Festivals" is the subtitle of a book, Banquo on Thursdays, published last summer to coincide with the festival's 50th anniversary. Its author, Iain Crawford, was the festival's first ever publicity director, appointed when Diamand became dissatisfied with the Scottish Tourist Board's publicity methods. Crawford's nine chapters each bear the names of the festival's directors and their periods of office. Diamand alone merits two chapters. The first is entitled "Against the Odds, Fiscal and Philistine"; the second, charting the festival's development from 1973 when Jack Kane, Edinburgh's first Labour Lord Provost, was in office, "The Phantom of the Opera House". Kane supported the dream of an Edinburgh opera house, but it was not to be; despite this handicap, Diamand gave the festival what many consider its golden years of opera.
In 1972 he managed to present the Deutsche Oper Am Rhein with an impossibly complex production of Zimmermann's Die Soldaten, on the small-scale stage of the King's Theatre. Five years later, again at the King's, there was the highly successful production of Bizet's Carmen, starring Teresa Berganza and Placido Domingo, conducted by a youthful Claudio Abbado.
Diamand had supported wholeheartedly the creator of Scottish Opera, Sir Alex Gibson's vision of a Scottish opera dimension in the festival programme and set them well on their way with Scottish Opera's production of Stravinsky's Rake's Progress in 1967. He also put his faith in Arthur Oldham to establish and conduct the Edinburgh Festival Chorus.
He was always ready to support gifted musicians at the beginning of their careers. At the Holland Festival he presented Kathleen Ferrier and Benjamin Britten before they had established themselves in Britain. He was also resolute in promoting the work of avant-garde composers, particularly Pierre Boulez, and even Mauricio Kagel, but he had to be more subtle in Edinburgh.
Taciturn and uncommunicative in his public persona, Diamand inspired love and loyalty among his friends. He was well served by his staff, and in particular by Alex Schouvaloff as his deputy director and Schouvaloff's successor, Bill Thomley. Both were given a free hand to deal with the theatre programme - I associate the Diamand years with the unforgettable productions of Japanese Noh theatre, Orlando Furioso and Tadeusz Kantor's Cricot Theatre productions of Stanislaus Witkiewicz's master works The Water Hen and Lovelies and Dowdies, never before seen in Britain.
Among many highlights, Frank Dunlop's Pop Theatre productions gave new meaning to Shakespeare, while the Prospect Theatre's Richard II launched the career of Ian McKellen. The Romanian Bulandra Theatre production of Leonce and Lena introduced the young Ion Carmitru, now the Romanian Minister of Culture. Modern dance was encouraged although there was no proper dance theatre. Pina Bausch and Nederlands Dance helped establish the festival as a venue for experimental dance.
Diamand was also the first director to take the contemporary visual arts seriously, and took the risk of asking me to organise exhibitions of contemporary, live artists. In 1967 I found myself presenting an exhibition of 100 contemporary British painters. In 1968 it was 30 Canadian artists. Over the years up to 1978, I was responsible for a programme which introduced the avant- garde artists of Romania, Poland, Germany, Austria and France. The German exhibition in 1970 was the first to show Josef Beuys's work to the English- speaking world.
In a conversation with Iain Crawford at the 40th Edinburgh Festival, Diamand he was asked to express his views on the festival's future. He expressed his worries that the festival had done more and more to attract an undiscriminating public, as if it was quantity that mattered. "I think this is sheer nonsense," he said. "What I consider as the Edinburgh Festival is addressed to a limited audience. Without knowledge about the contents of the festival you cannot expect to attract a mass audience."
These wise words suggest that it is not enough to invest in art festivals without first investing in art education. In an age when marketing forces are driving the arts, never has the spirit of Peter Diamand been more needed.
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