Music maestro who led top orchestras dies at 91

Tributes have been paid to renowned classical violinist John Ludlow, who taught numerous eminent musicians, led various famous orchestras – and impressed Dame Margot Fonteyn with his playing.

Classical violinist John Ludlow
Classical violinist John Ludlow

Mr Ludlow, who has died aged 91, was the founder leader of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in 1948. He hailed originally from Birmingham and moved to Shropshire in 2004 with his wife Marilyn on his retirement.

He was a Professor at the Royal College of Music for 27 years and many of his students have achieved prominent positions throughout the music profession.

"The tributes that have come in are wonderful to read. He was very highly regarded," said his daughter, Erica Malcolmson.

One anecdote dates from his time as co-leader of the Royal Opera House Orchestra at Covent Garden, where the legendary ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn was dancing in Swan Lake.

Erica said: "One day the leader was off, and he had to play the main solo. When Dame Margot came off she asked who had played the solo. She was told it was John Ludlow. 'I want him to play every time,' she said."

He would often teach his students at the Royal College of Music all morning, starting at 8am, and then afterwards head off to places like the South Bank or venues around the country for rehearsals and concerts with orchestras which he was leading.

Incidentally the leader of an orchestra is the most important person after the conductor, with whom he or she will liaise, and will generally be the most gifted violinist, usually plays the violin solos, and ensures the ensemble's standards of musical excellence.

Lifelong friend Paul Gray said: "John was always the consummate professional, but in two guises – the passionate musician, and the principled man. Such a winning combination."

Born in Edgbaston in 1931, Mr Ludlow came from a musical family, his father David Ludlow being leader and later conductor of the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra, and his mother Dorothy being a talented viola player.

Young John was educated at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, and then studied at the Royal College of Music, first with Henry Holst and subsequently with Manoug Parikian.

After doing his National Service in the Army he joined the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which was still then under legendary conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. He was then appointed leader of what was the Sadler’s Wells Opera Orchestra in 1957.

In the early 1960s he joined the BBC Symphony Orchestra, on the 2nd desk, moving on to be co-leader of the Royal Opera House Orchestra. He left Covent Garden to enter the freelance world in the late 1960s.

He played for Yehudi Menuhin’s Bath Festival Orchestra, and also become co-leader of the London Mozart Players.

John Ludlow, right, with Yehudi Menuhin.

In 1970 he returned to the Royal College of Music as professor, and from 1971, in what was hailed as a magical partnership, shared the leadership of the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra with the famous violinist Hugh Bean.

Many other orchestras and ensembles saw Mr Ludlow leading from the front, including the London Concert Orchestra and the English National Orchestra.

Mr Ludlow continued to support the National Youth Orchestra throughout his life, not only as a donor, but also through helping Roberto Ruisi, who became its youngest ever leader in 2012 at the age of 15, by loaning him his Stradivarius violin for the orchestra's final three concerts of the 2014 season.

The gesture made national headlines. Mr Ludlow had been struck by similarities in his early life and that of his young successor, with both coming from Edgbaston and attending King Edward's School, and Roberto going to study at the Royal College of Music where he had taught, and he also saw a lot of his own style and musicianship in Roberto’s playing.

Mr Ludlow had bought the rare instrument, valued at £1 million and dating from about 1685, in 1965. It has since been sold.

Erica said her father had stopped playing violin around 15 years ago, or more.

"From the day he stopped he refused to play another note. I think you get to the point where, as in any sport or art, you can't play as well as you used to and you want to stop before you go downhill, and because you no longer enjoy it."

John Ludlow in later life

Mr Ludlow is survived by wife Marilyn, daughters Erica and Anna from his first marriage to violinist Katie, three grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

He died at home near Shrewsbury on September 29 and the funeral was at Shrewsbury crematorium on Wednesday, October 12.

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