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Obituary / Eleanor Aller

Margaret Campbell
Monday 13 November 1995 01:02 GMT

It would be difficult to name a more versatile musician than the cellist Eleanor Aller. She took solo playing, string quartets, orchestral playing, motion pictures and television all in her stride and excelled in every field. She once said: "You name it. I've done it! I've done rock and roll. And I loved every minute of it!" Aller was also the first woman to succeed as a musician in the Hollywood film-making industry, thus pioneering the way for future generations of female musicians.

Eleanor Aller was born in New York into a Russian emigre family where musicians had flourished for generations. Her father was a cellist who gave her her first lessons when she was nine, and within a year she had won a gold medal as first prize in a competition. At 12 she won another competition which earned her an appearance at Carnegie Hall. At 16 she was awarded a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music to study with Felix Salmond, which she once described as "the most exhilarating experience" of her musical life. She regarded Salmond as one of the greatest musicians she had ever met, and of his teaching she said: "My father had given me a wonderful basic training so when I went to him I was already a cellist, but what Salmond did was to teach me to play musically."

On graduating she made a number of tours as a soloist through the United States but her heart had been set on chamber music ever since, as a child, she would lie in bed listening to her family playing string quartets far into the night. So when she met the violinist Felix Slatkin - whom she married in 1939 - and discovered a kindred spirit, they played with friends on every free evening. Sometimes they would perform for composers writing for the film industry, and on one of these occasions an executive from Warner Brothers was present. He said they needed a principal cellist for their studio orchestra and suggested she might audition for the job. She came through a week of very tough examination with flying colours and, at 19, was the youngest person ever to have held such a position - one she held for 36 years. In 1972 she moved on to 20th Century-Fox, where she was their principal cellist until 1985.

When Felix Slatkin was asked to form a string quartet with Joachim Chassman as second violin and the violist Paul Robyn, Aller was a natural choice for cellist, and they called themselves the Hollywood Quartet. When the three main members enlisted for military service in the Second World War, the group as it was disbanded.

On Felix Slatkin's demobilisation from the Air Corps in 1945, he formed another Hollywood Quartet with Paul Shore on second violin and gave a series of three public concerts which were sold out for every performance. A representative from Capitol Records attended one of these and immediately offered them a contract. From this time onwards their success was legendary. They not only made some of the finest recordings of the day but also gave concerts throughout the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Europe, and made a highly successful British debut at the Edinburgh Festival.

Over the years they had many interesting experiences, such as when Capitol wanted them to record Arnold Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht in its original form, which entailed a private visit to play to the composer in Los Angeles. He interrupted them at every other bar, but after they had played for several hours in a temperature of 104F he finally approved, and offered them bourbon and doughnuts as refreshment. One of Aller's prize possessions was a photograph of Schoenberg which arrived two weeks later, autographed: "For the Hollywood String Quartet for playing my Verklarte Nacht with such subtle beauty." They are still the only quartet to have the original score with Schoenberg's signature, which is otherwise unpublished.

They were also the first quartet to record the William Walton String Quartet. When the composer visited the US much later, he told them he hoped no one else would record the work because they had captured so exactly what he wanted and yet were 9,000 miles distant.

Aller's career as principal cellist for Warner Brothers was equally distinguished. Erich Korngold wrote his very difficult Cello Concerto for her in the film Deception (1946), starring Bette Davis and Claude Rains with Paul Henreid as the virtuoso soloist. She also gave the premiere of this concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Besides having played for countless films there were other occasions when she accompanied stars like Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and Frank Sinatra in live concerts. In the late Eighties she was invited to coach string students at the Toronto Conservatory of Music.

Of her cello playing, her son the conductor Leonard Slatkin, speaking on behalf of his brother the cellist Frederick Zlotkin and himself, said: "Our mother was a peerless cellist who inspired musicians around the world. She was uncompromising in her musical beliefs and everyone who knew her respected her judgement. It is gratifying that, towards the end of her life, she began to get the recognition she long deserved."

As a woman she had a warm, larger-than-life personality with a wicked sense of humour. She also had an indefatigable ability to learn new skills. After Felix Slatkin died in 1963, she achieved a long-cherished ambition to become an aeroplane pilot. She took lessons and, after 50 hours, flew solo and continued to enjoy her hobby until 1986 when she was 69. She once told me: "I know I'm a crazy lady but I like to try everything and there isn't enough time to do it all."

Margaret Campbell

Eleanor Aller, cellist: born New York City 20 May 1917; married 1939 Felix Slatkin (died 1963; two sons); died Los Angeles 12 October 1995.

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