Loretta Kleanthous obituary: Pianist and activist with ‘huge interest in music for children’

Former director of National Youth Orchestra and founder of Anti-Apartheid Movement

Born: November 18th 1931

Died: June 17th 2021

Loretta Kleanthous, who has died aged 89, was a pianist and harpsichordist. For many years, she was director of the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland and a director of the National Ballet Company.

She was also active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament as well as in the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, of which she was a founding member. As part of a delegation from the latter, she once met a government minister who, in discussing matters in South Africa, asked her how she would feel if her daughter married a black man.

“So long as they were compatible and they loved each other, I suppose I’d feel the same way as if she married a freckle-faced, red haired Irishman,” she replied.

She herself married twice - to different men who nonetheless became friends and enjoyed each other’s company, as well as that of the woman they both loved.

Born in November 1931, Loretta Kleanthous was the only daughter of Alexander (Alec) and Claire Wine. While Loretta, who was widely known as Laura, wore her Jewish heritage lightly, the story of her family is the story of the wave of Jewish migration from eastern Europe in the late 19th century, some of whom settled in parts of Dublin, notably around Clanbrassil Street and Portobello.

Alec’s father, Louis Wine, who may have been born Weiner or Wein, left Lithuania aged 13, walking to the frontier accompanied by his father. He was inspired to leave Lithuania by a letter sent from Ireland by a step-brother who spoke glowingly of “a land of great opportunity”, according to a brief memoir of her family written by Loretta.

The young Louis eventually found a boat heading for England where the authorities recorded the arrival of a Louis “Wine”, an apparent error of hearing. On arrival in Ireland, Louis discovered his step-brother had gone on to America, effectively leaving the young Wine destitute.

Despite this, and with the help of a priest who placed him with a charitable family, Louis Wine prospered - initially selling religious items from a handcart, then as a tea merchant and later as an antiques dealer trading out of a beautiful Victorian shop on Grafton Street that bore his name.

Louis Wine married Hanshen Cohen from Holles Street and together, they had six children, one of whom, Alec, was Loretta’s father. Her mother Claire had grown up in New York, the daughter of Jewish migrants originally from Chisinau, capital of Moldova, then part of the Russian Empire.

From the age of six or seven, Loretta played the piano each morning before going to school, with Claire standing over her to bolster her commitment. The family home was in Grosvenor Place in Rathmines and Loretta attended the nearby Quaker-run Rathgar Junior School.

From there, she went on to attend Alexandra College, then in Earlsfort Terrace, after which, aged 17, she went to the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris as a pupil of the renowned pianist Marcel Ciampi.

Later, she was a pupil in London of Doris Lasserson. It was while in London that she met her first husband, a young Irish veterinary surgeon and academic, Justin Keating, then studying at the University College London, whom she had earlier encountered in Dublin.

The marriage (in 1952 at Caxton Hall) was unknown to Loretta’s parents back in Ireland who, despite whatever surprise they felt, accepted the partnership and welcomed Keating - later a distinguished agriculture broadcaster, MEP, Labour Party minister, and senator - into their family.

Loretta pursued her musical career, much of it also in broadcasting. She took a teaching diploma and gave concerts, often on radio from the less than ideal Radio Eireann recording studios housed then inside the GPO.

“She had a memory of a squeaky chair in the recording studios”, according to her daughter, Carla King. “The concerts were broadcast live and so she had to be very careful.”

But with the arrival of children (there were three) she gave up playing concerts, and the travel they would have necessitated, in order to raise them. “She ended up doing what women did in those days and brought up the children,” says Carla.

Around 1970, she studied harpsichord through the composer and Bach scholar, John Beckett. But whatever thoughts she may have had about returning to performing were dealt a blow when she developed rheumatism in her fingers.

Instead, she threw herself into teaching, occasional political activism and supporting her husband’s political career. Apart from her commitment to racial equality and opposition to nuclear weapons, the anti-Semitic posturings of the veteran, Limerick-based conservative TD, Stevie Coughlan, prompted her to resign from the Labour Party.

In 1980, she founded the Junior Youth Orchestra, which aimed to provide an outlet for musically gifted children aged 12 to 18, and a feeder system for the Irish Youth Orchestra (IYO) which catered for young people from 18 into their early 20s.

For the Junior Orchestra, Tim Booth of the avant-garde rock band Dr Strangely Strange designed a logo that aimed to appeal to young teenagers. It showed the silhouette head of a cello player who sported a punk-rock Mohican haircut.

The highly successful IYO had been founded in 1970 by Olive Smith. When she retired in 1982, Kleanthous took over, holding the position of director until 1996.

“Loretta was just a tireless worker with a huge interest in music for children,” recalls Gerry Keenan, manager of the Irish Chamber Orchestra who worked with her. “There are many musicians today who began in the Junior Youth Orchestra.”

As IYO director, she oversaw numerous foreign trips which saw young people perform in major auditoria abroad. In 1983 on a tour of the United States, the orchestra gave concerts in the Symphony Hall in Boston, the Avery Fisher Hall (since renamed the David Geffen Hall) at New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. In 1987, the orchestra played in Strasbourg, Luxembourg, Brussels and Metz.

In 1986, 110 children in the orchestra toured Cyprus, performing outdoors in a classical amphitheatre in Paphos, and also giving concerts in Limassol and Nicosia.

By this time, Cyprus had assumed an increasingly important role in Loretta’s personal life. In 1973, she had met Yiannis Kleanthous, a Greek-Cypriot archaeologist.

Grown apart from Justin Keating, she and Yiannis became close friends and eventually lovers. She and Keating formally separated in 1990.

“It was a very amicable divorce,” says their daughter Carla. “Justin, his partner Barbara, and Yiannis and Loretta would often dine together.”

In her diary, Loretta noted the end of the 38 year marriage: “We remained good friends afterwards. I feel it is the closing of a chapter which lasted most of my life. He was a wonderful person, not easy to live with at times, but I feel privileged to have had this long relationship.”

In Paphos, she and Yiannis restored a ruined barn. They married in 1993 and, retiring from the Irish Youth Orchestra in 1996, she moved there, staying happily until Yiannis’ death in 2017, which prompted her to return to Ireland.

“She loved the island,” says Carla. “She loved the landscape, the smells, the warmth, the people and how friendly they were.”

In the music world, she is remembered fondly and with particular gratitude by some.

“There was always kindness behind Loretta,” says Keenan. “She never forgot her roots, her humble beginnings. She was extremely generous. Some of the kids [in the orchestra] came from difficult circumstances but [she ensured]that that never stopped them.”

Loretta Kleanthous was predeceased by her husband Yiannis and her previous husband, Justin Keating. She is survived by her children with Keating, Carla, Eilis and David; her grandchildren, Wendy, Danielle, Jonah, Jonathan, and Sean; and her great-grandchildren.