Obituary: Wilfred Stiff

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The Independent Online
Though Wilfred Stiff worked in a range of managerial positions within the classical music business over a period of more than 40 years, it is possibly his first achievement that will be remembered longest.

Fresh from active, often dangerous service with the Navy during the Second World War, he became secretary of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society in 1946. This brought responsibility as general manager for a Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra facing major financial crisis, having gone full-time in the unpromising climate of 1942, when the city was a magnet for emigre London musicians. That the Philharmonic became established as one of the leading British orchestras (under the direction of the likes of Malcolm Sargent and Hugo Rignold) had much to do with Stiff's financial acumen, his determination that playing standards were central to success and, not least, his flair for artistic innovation. The relish for new ideas remained with him all his life.

Stiff's qualifications for the job in Liverpool were on paper merely those of many an amateur music lover. As a boy - educated at Tollington School in Muswell Hill, north London - he was head chorister at St Alban the Martyr in High Holborn. (Here admittedly his choirmaster was someone a little out of the ordinary - Reginald Goodall, later to conduct the premiere of Britten's Peter Grimes.) Apart from this Stiff was an avid concert-goer, a Queen's Hall devotee, but no sort of musical practitioner. The start of his working life was humdrum - as a clerk for the North Met Power Company.

War, as for so many who survived, broadened horizons and toughened sinews - excellent preparation for tooth-and-nail battles with the local Liverpool council over funding of the orchestra and financial responsibility for Philharmonic Hall. Stiff was involved in a string of innovations, inaugurating the Industrial Concerts which opened doors to new audiences (as I can testify from personal experience) and putting Prom concerts into a boxing stadium. It was Stiff who sought for the orchestra the "Royal" prefix, which was granted shortly after his departure in 1956 for new challenges in London. Beyond the Philharmonic, Stiff had a hand in the formation of the Merseyside Youth Orchestra (which was to nurture Simon Rattle) and in bringing Glyndebourne to Liverpool - a coup which helped pave the way for the concept of Glyndebourne Touring Opera.

In London Stiff took the future in his own hands. Public relations in the musical field has a much longer history than we tend to assume, but Stiff was nonetheless among the new breed who saw how important PR would be in the developing world of communications, forming Wilfred Stiff Ltd, which over 10 years handled the media profiles of the likes of the pianist Gina Bachauer, the London Symphony Orchestra and the inimitable Tom Lehrer. For three years from 1968 he stepped back into the management of a performing arts organisation, becoming administrative director of the then London Festival Ballet. Once again he rescued a sinking ship, balancing the books and doubling audiences, but ultimately he decided the world of ballet held less appeal than the music itself.

A chance meeting at a dinner party with a director of the London Management agency - which represented a string of top actors - brought Stiff into the field of concert artist management, where he was to remain until retirement in the mid-1980s. Having developed a classical music wing to London Management through the simple expedient of buying up an existing music agency, the Wilfrid van Wyck office, Stiff then proposed acquiring Ibbs & Tillett, one of the legendary names in classical music artist management. When the deal fell through at the very last moment, Stiff had already moved into Ibbs and Tillett's offices at 124 Wigmore Street. So there he stayed, invited to become a company director by Emmie Tillett, widow of the firm's co-founder and one of the world's best-known managers.

This was a crucial time for the agency. A failure to move with the times was leading to haemorrhaging of staff and of musicians. When Mrs Tillett handed over the business to Stiff in the late 1970s, he presided over a dramatic turn-round in management style which, if not recapturing past glories, made a rebuilding process possible. Even so, selling artists in the modern, furiously competitive fashion wasn't exactly Stiff's style. He believed that the musical grapevine would see justice done. Ever the diplomat, he was at his best as a solicitous minder looking after, in his suave way, the needs of established international artists such as Emil Gilels, Clifford Curzon, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the Amadeus String Quartet.

It was a shock to Stiff when the firm collapsed (amid an all-too-public controversy over alleged financial mismanagement) four years after he had retired and handed over the reins. That retirement was dizzyingly active, whether it meant continuing to serve on the board of Trinity College of Music, supervising the development of facilities at the Ealing tennis club, dipping his toe in local constituency politics or chairing the board of governors at Brentside High School. Tennis and swimming were great passions, the former always prompting animated conversation and punditry. While not qualifying as a true raconteur, he was one of the great talkers, as I learnt early in 1978 when he phoned the shop where I was working with the offer of a job. Almost immediately the phone went dead and I returned to my tasks, expecting a call back. Several minutes later none had arrived so enquiries were made with the switchboard. After further delay I was reconnected. Stiff was still talking, oblivious of any interruption.

Wilfred Stiff is survived by his wife and tennis-companion, the delightfully dry and wistful Susan, and three children.

Wilfred Charles Stiff, music manager: born London 30 November 1918; married 1949 Susan Gill (two sons, one daughter); died London 15 January 1996.

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