John Woolf obituary | Classical music
After the Second World War, British concert and operatic life benefited from enthusiastic audiences, wider education and dissemination, the commercial success of long-playing recording, and public funding of the arts. But there were gaps—opportunities for young performers, new music, and lesser-known operas—that required the flair of an imaginative impresario, albeit working in a nonprofit environment. John Woolf, who died at the age of 91 of cancer, was one of them.
A violinist with what was then the Covent Garden Opera Company, in 1956 he agreed to the use of a central London house – 45 Park Lane, replaced in the 1960s by a nightclub – as the base of an organization for do the things other people do. do not do. For the next 65 years he ran the Park Lane Group virtually alone, with the help of a support committee. Funding came mainly from musical trusts and shared galas of West End musicals, with some help from the Arts Council in the early years.
From its inception, the PLG has provided the main platform for young performers of exceptional talent, primarily in the Purcell Hall at the Southbank Centre, London, since the hall opened in 1967. The 1,600 artists featured at the time of John’s death included pianists John Ogdon and Imogen Cooper, singers Thomas Allen and Josephine Barstow, the Nash Ensemble and the Arditti Quartet. The work of many living composers was featured, and in this area his efforts were aided by music publisher Giles Easterbrook.
The trust’s other two purposes were to organize imaginative musical occasions and to celebrate the life and work of great musicians, which it often did by marking anniversaries. In 1962 William Walton conducted his Façade work at the Royal Festival Hall, with Edith Sitwell and Peter Pears reciting his poems to mark his 75th birthday. Outside London, Boulez in Birmingham (2008) took place in the presence of the composer. Park Lane Opera ran until 1981, often at the Camden Festival in London, and there were 25 productions, mostly staged, including Gian Carlo Menotti’s Maria Golovin (1976), conducted by the composer.
The PLG was particularly active in the 1970s. The 1972-73 season, for example, opened with mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian in a Parisian salon program at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall; later in the season, Igor Oistrakh gave a violin recital there. Lord Berners’ music has been celebrated by pianist and PLG founding member Susan Bradshaw, mezzo-soprano Meriel Dickinson, my sister and I in piano songs, and poet John Betjeman giving readings. John Cages’ Music Circus, with students from the University of Birmingham, took over the Round House, north London, for its first performance in Europe. Eight concerts bringing together artists from six continental European countries marked the United Kingdom’s accession to the European Economic Community. Soprano Jane Manning took part in an electronic music program with Tristram Cary. There was jazz, with a commissioned work from Ian Carr and a program from the Mike Gibbs Band. Among the singers were Shirley Verrett at the Royal Festival Hall and Felicity Palmer at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with the Park Lane Players.
Born in Nice, in the south of France, John was the son of Antoinette (née Piguete) and Hermann Woolf, a translator. In June 1940, John and his father escaped from France via Marseilles and Gibraltar on a Scottish collier. Eventually they reached Plymouth and were able to join his mother and older brother in London.
John played violin in various London orchestras from the mid-1940s. In 1952 he joined the second violins of the Royal Opera House Orchestra, moving to first violins in 1974 and leaving them in 1995. contact with the greatest lyrical repertoire and came to regret having sold his beautiful violin after his departure.
After the Covid pandemic made it impossible to perform Purcell Hall concerts around the New Year, John organized midday concerts for young artists which were broadcast live from St James’s Church, Piccadilly. At the time of his death a new round of luncheons was underway at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, High Holborn, and he had other plans in the works for the future.
John was incredibly generous and devoted, and an affable companion. He was made an MBE (1974), Honorary Member of the Royal College of Music (1981) and Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music (2007). But always modest, he refused that I write an article about him and his achievements for his 90th birthday. He was like a player with gigs – he couldn’t resist them and no doubt invested a considerable amount of his own funds in PLG for many years.
His brief marriage to Catherine Roberts ended in divorce and he is survived by their son, Andrew, a saxophonist and clarinetist.