Iona Brown

Violinist and conductor
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The Independent Online

As a soloist, the violinist Iona Brown appeared with major orchestras under leading conductors worldwide, and had critics running out of superlatives. For many years she also successfully took on the roles of director and conductor on an international level.

Iona Brown, violinist: born Salisbury, Wiltshire 7 January 1941; violinist and conductor, Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields 1974-80; Artistic Director, Norwegian Chamber Orchestra 1981-2001, Conductor Laureate 2001-04; Guest Director, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra 1985-89; MBE 1986; Artistic Director, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra 1987-92, Conductor and Music Adviser 1995-97; twice married; died Bowerchalke, Wiltshire 5 June 2004.

As a soloist, the violinist Iona Brown appeared with major orchestras under leading conductors worldwide, and had critics running out of superlatives. For many years she also successfully took on the roles of director and conductor on an international level.

She was born, in 1941, into a family of professional musicians. Her father was a pianist and organist and her mother a violinist in the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Her three siblings all played an instrument and followed in the family footsteps: her brother Tim is principal horn in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, her sister Sally is a viola player and her brother Ian a distinguished pianist and chamber musician.

Iona had her first lessons on the violin at six with Nora Atkinson and took some further study with Hugh McGuire. In her early teens she was a member of the National Youth Orchestra and later sought guidance from individual teachers in Rome, Brussels, Vienna and Paris, where she was a student of Henryk Szeryng.

She was a rank-and-file member of the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 1963 to 1966 when she resigned in order to devote herself to her expanding solo career. Her first important engagement and London début was playing the Mendelssohn Concerto at the Proms under Sir Malcolm Sargent. "The whole evening sticks in my mind as extraordinary," she recalled:

Once I got past the first page I was all right. But you can't be prepared for the atmosphere and the rush of hot air as you walk on until you've done it. I nearly passed out from sheer excitement and fright.

From this time onwards she appeared as a soloist and director with various orchestras as a freelance and also made recordings.

One of the orchestras in which she played regularly was the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, which had been directed by Neville Marriner since 1959. In 1974 Marriner approached Brown with an invitation to take over the directorship. She said, "You're crazy!" He replied, "I'm not crazy. You can do it standing on your head!" She not only held that position for many years, but also took on directorships of several other chamber orchestras, including the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with reduced forces in 1985. She was artistic director of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra from 1981, and in 1987 she also took on the directorship of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: for many years she directed all three.

Although she spent most of her time with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, she travelled extensively from one to another and had a particular affection for the Norwegian group. It was the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich who initially brought her in contact with them and she found a particular interest in helping them to develop.

She was once asked if being a woman made it harder to direct, and she said that she thought that people would jump on you for the slightest thing, but that the most important thing was that you had to do the job well. She went on to say that there was no question that life would have been easier had she been a man, but retorted: "I wouldn't be a man for anything!" Iona Brown was a very beautiful woman, very feminine, with a charismatic personality. She was also very particular about her appearance on the platform and was well known for her designer wardrobe. On occasions she was known to have her audience gasping after she changed her dress in the interval.

However, when she was in charge of an orchestra she knew exactly where she was going and what she required from her players. Her leadership qualities - which were what Marriner had spotted so many years before - were positive and precise. Because she was so accomplished both technically and musically she was able to command respect from her players. This was quite an achievement in a role that few women have dared to undertake.

Brown made some memorable recordings, which include Vaughan Williams's "The Lark Ascending", Mozart's Haffner Symphony and (as conductor) 19th-Century Guitar Concertos.

As a person Brown was dynamic in every sense of the word and a perfectionist in everything she tackled. She could be very outspoken. But she also had a tender side known only to her family and friends. She possessed a wicked sense of humour.

Her last years were blighted by crippling arthritis. She underwent two hip replacements but struggled with the increasing difficulty of holding her violin. In Tokyo six years ago she played "The Lark Ascending" and had a tremendous response from her audience. It was apparently one of her most inspired performances. But she knew she had been struggling to conceal her pain and her difficulty in controlling her fingering. When she reached her dressing room she decided that enough was enough. She never played in public again.

Margaret Campbell