As cellist, broadcaster and teacher, Eleanor Warren successfully fulfilled three careers in her long life in music and touched the lives of countless young musicians. In her second career as a radio producer for the BBC, she started the famously successful Monday lunchtime concerts at St John's, Smith Square, after the bomb-damaged church was rebuilt as a concert hall in 1969.
Warren was born in London in 1919 to a German mother who was a serious amateur cellist. When only five years old Eleanor became the youngest-ever student at the London Cello School, playing on an eighth-size cello which, for her first "concert appearance" was tuned by John Barbirolli - later to become, together with his wife, Evelyn, a close friend.
She soon began to win prizes at competitions and festivals and in 1933 played to Gregor Piatigorsky, who advised her not to study abroad because of her Jewish parentage, but gave her regular help and encouragement on his London visits. Among her contemporaries at the London Cello School were Zara Nelsova and Olga Hegedus. Herbert Wallen, Director of the school, dissuaded all three from going to the Royal Academy for fear that they would become distracted and "waste too much time". They remained at the London Cello School and had the opportunity to learn a huge amount of solo and chamber music repertoire. Warren gained further experience through regular work in principal positions in London chamber orchestras and freelance orchestral engagements.
Piatigorsky introduced Warren to the agent Harold Holt, who arranged her Wigmore Hall début concert in 1935, when she was 16. She received excellent reviews and was soon appearing at Holt Celebrity Concerts, earning five guineas a show, with such artists as John McCormack, Richard Tauber and Paul Robeson. Solo and concerto dates soon followed, in England, Holland, Belgium and Canada.
During the Second World War, she, like many other artists, played for the armed services, factory workers and hospitals in arduous and sometimes dangerous conditions. She used to recall with delight concerts given in the Underground, where crowds who congregated at night to escape the Blitz were astounded to be regaled by the formidable Olga Slobodskaya loudly singing operatic arias in Russian.
In 1942 Warren attended a concert at the Czech Embassy, where she was struck by the musicianship of Walter Susskind, then pianist of the Czech Trio and already a noted conductor. They married in 1943 and her life took a new direction. The birth of their son Peter in 1944 meant an arduous mix of motherhood, practice and engagements, including a visit to the Russian fleet in Scapa Flow with her childhood friend the pianist Nina Milkina.
Walter Susskind became Chief Conductor of the Scottish Orchestra (now the Royal Scottish National Orchestra) and life was divided between Glasgow and London. After the war it was at last possible to travel abroad, and Warren studied with Pierre Fournier in Paris and Switzerland and, in 1949, with Casals in Prades.
Susskind left Glasgow in 1952 to take over the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Their marriage ended in 1953 and Warren plunged headlong into the London scene, working with the English Chamber Orchestra, the London Mozart Players, the Zorian Quartet and the English Baroque Ensemble, as well as regular film sessions with Malcolm Arnold, Richard Rodney Bennett and Jacques Loussier.
A back injury forced her to abandon the cello, and in 1964 her second career began when she joined the BBC as a Music Assistant, soon broadcasting and devising programmes and series, for which she proved to have immense flair. The Monday lunchtime concerts, which she established at St John's, Smith Square, in Westminster, mixed some of the great performers and ensembles with emerging artists, amongst whom she had an uncanny knack for picking winners. One in particular was to become her great friend, the pianist Graham Johnson, who created the Songmakers' Almanac, of which she was proud to be a director.
In the 1970s she added a new series of live recitals from the Concert Hall in Broadcasting House, featuring artists of the younger generation. Warren spotted a talented young studio manager and asked her to interview the artists at the start of the concerts. The interviewer was Natalie Wheen.
She was promoted to Chief Producer in 1971 and became closely involved with the Leeds Piano Competition. Four years later, she was appointed Head of Music Programmes, Radio. One of her staff, a certain Nicholas Kenyon, fondly remembers her care for the most junior members, nurturing and guiding their progress with care and affection.
It was a fulfilling role for her, but at times she felt frustrated by BBC bureaucracy and a tempting offer from John Manduell led her, in 1977, to the newly created Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, as Head of Strings. Her innate interest in young performers made the role perfect for her and she quickly placed chamber music at the heart of the department. She established a tradition of recitals and master classes from the greatest musicians, including Pierre Fournier, the Vermeer Quartet, Julian Bream, John Williams and Gary Karr, the double bass virtuoso. But as ever her principal concern was for the students, and, despite her doubts about the wisdom of competitions, she became involved in the BBC Young Musician of the Year when it began in 1978 at the RNCM. She was a juror for all four categories.
Finally, her London base and her family and friends proved too strong a lure, and she decided to leave Manchester. In 1984 John Hosier, Principal of the Guildhall School of Music, asked her to establish a system for embedding chamber music in the school, and the next year Michael Gough Matthews, Director of the Royal College of Music, asked her to become Chamber Music Director. She continued in both posts for the next 10 years.
"Retirement" did not follow, as she was constantly in demand as adjudicator, adviser and mentor. She was particularly delighted when Ralph Kirshbaum, one of the many cellists whom she befriended, created the Manchester International Cello Festival at the RNCM.
Only when heart surgery intervened (she hadn't allowed an earlier brush with cancer to interfere with her career) was she reluctantly forced to slow up, and in recent months hitherto undiagnosed cancer caused a sharp deterioration in her health: but not in her passion for music, her sharpness of mind or her wicked sense of humour.
Tony FellReuse content