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John Woolf obituary | Classical music

After the second world war British concert and operatic life benefited from keen audiences, expanded education and broadcasting, the commercial success of the long-playing record and public funding of the arts. But there were gaps – opportunities for young performers, new music and lesser-known operas – that called for the flair of an imaginative impresario, though working in a not-for-profit einvironment. John Woolf, who has died aged 91 of cancer, was such a figure.

A violinist with what was then the Covent Garden Opera Company, in 1956 he accepted the use of a house in central London – 45 Park Lane, replaced in the 1960s by a nightclub – as the base for an organization to do the things that others were not doing. For the next 65 years he ran the Park Lane Group virtually on his own, with the help of a supportive committee. Funding came mainly from musical trusts and shared gala performances of West End musicals, with some Arts Council assistance in early years.

From its start the PLG provided the leading platform for young performers of outstanding talent, principally in the Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre, London, from the hall’s opening in 1967. The 1,600 artists presented by the time of John’s death included the pianists John Ogdon and Imogen Cooper, the 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 the music publisher Giles Easterbrook.

The trust’s other two aims were to mount imaginative musical occasions, and to celebrate the lives and work of great musicians, which it often did by marking anniversaries. In 1962 William Walton conducted his work Façade in the Royal Festival Hall, with Edith Sitwell and Peter Pears reciting her poems to mark her 75th birthday. Outside London, Boulez in Birmingham (2008) took place in the presence of the composer. Park Lane Opera functioned until 1981, often at the Camden festival in London, and there were 25 productions, mostly staged, including Gian Carlo Menotti’s Maria Golovin (1976), directed by the composer.

The PLG was particularly active in the 70s. The 1972-73 season, for example, opened with the mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian in a Parisian salon program in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London; later in the season Igor Oistrakh gave a violin recital there. The music of Lord Berners was celebrated by the pianist and PLG founding member Susan Bradshaw, the mezzo-soprano Meriel Dickinson, my sister, and me in songs with piano, and the poet John Betjeman giving readings. John Cages’s Music Circus, with students from Birmingham University, took over the Round House, north London, for its first performance in Europe. Eight concerts including performers from six mainland European countries marked the UK’s accession to the European Economic Community. The 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. Singers included 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 (nee Piguete), and Hermann Woolf, a translator. In June 1940, John and his father escaped from France through Marseille and to Gibraltar on a Scottish collier. Eventually they reached Plymouth, and were able to join his mother and older brother in London.

John played the violin in various London orchestras from the mid-1940s. In 1952 he joined the second violins of the orchestra at the Royal Opera House, moving on to the first violins in 1974 and leaving in 1995. He enormously valued his contact with the greatest operatic repertoire, and came to regret selling his fine violin after his departure.

After the Covid pandemic made the Purcell Room concerts around new year impossible, John put on lunchtime concerts for young artists that were streamed live from St James’ church, Piccadilly. At the time of his death a new lunchtime series was running at Holy Sepulcher church, High Holborn, and he had other plans in train for the future.

John was incredibly generous and dedicated, and an affable companion. He was appointed MBE (1974), an honorary member of the Royal College of Music (1981) and honorary fellow of the Royal Academy of Music (2007). But ever modest, he refused to let me write an article about him and his achievements for his 90th birthday. He was like a gambler with concerts – he could not resist them and undoubtedly put a considerable amount of his own funds into the PLG over many years.

His brief marriage to Catherine Roberts ended in divorce, and he is survived by their son, Andrew, a saxophone and clarinet player.

John Robin Marcel Woolf, concert promoter, born 12 Apr 1930; died January 30, 2022

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