10 Questions for Alison Stephens
By Mandolin Cafe
January 20, 2010 - 8:00 am
Alison Stephens is happily chatting away with us via email and apologizing for what she thinks might be some questionable typing when we find out she's doing so from the train, commuting long distance to a theater gig.
After the evening's performance, a late night return is in the cards, and a new day ahead might have her teaching mandolin privately or as a faculty member at Trinity College of Music (Greenwich, London), preparing for a concert or recital, working on a recording for a motion picture or performing editorial work for a major UK music publishing house.
These are but a few titles this busy Cambridgeshire-based mandolinist wears on a daily basis: recording artist, teacher and editor.
And she recently added another many of us watched unfold in real time: Cancer survivor.
A visit to her web site and you might expect to find a highlighted reference to her recording work for the blockbuster movie Captain Corelli's Mandolin. After all, she's personal friends with the author, Louis de Bernières. But it's merely mentioned in passing along with other movie soundtracks on which she's appeared. Alison Stephens doesn't dwell much on the past, this much is apparent.
Quite simply, she appears to be constantly on the run and looking forward to the next musical challenge in her life. We caught up with Alison over the break to find out what she's up to, and as usual, plenty!
Mandolin Cafe: Let's start off by having you tell us about your mandolins. Do they all have names?
Alison Stephens: I currently own 5 mandolins, and yes, they all have names: Baby, Beast, Hugo, Junior and Vinny.
In 1988 I was playing as a "young upcoming mandolinist" at a big mandolin festival in Malmedy, Belgium. I was playing a 1985 Pasquale Pecoraro mandolin that was made for me but was desperate to get my hands on an Embergher. In Malmedy I met Kurt Jensen and Tove Flensborg from Denmark and they told me that a friend of theirs wanted to sell a 5b Embergher to a promising player. So we arranged to get the instrument on approval (it needed some repairs and was rather unloved). The short story is that Mum bought it for me and its been my main concert instrument ever since. It's a 1933 model 5b Luigi Embergher and it's a stunningly beautiful instrument in every sense. Its name stems from the fact that I wouldn't let it out of my sight when I first got it and took such enormous care of it. My Mum named it "BABY." I've had Baby for over 21 years now.
In 1991 I was still studying at Trinity College of Music but also did quite a few professional concerts and things. A friend told me about a 1764 Vincentius Vinaccia mandolin from Naples that was coming up for auction in London. These instruments weren't terribly desirable at that time and went for prices from about £1,000 upwards. I begged and borrowed as much money as I could and went to the auction where a very strange thing happened: a very well known instrument dealer was there who, at the time, snapped up virtually every very old mandolin and guitar sold in London at auction but he didn't bid on the mandolin! I got it—just under my budget and was delighted. On my way out of the sale room, the dealer tapped me on the shoulder and said in a very grumpy voice "it's a pile of junk, it'll never play again."
It was my opinion that it would play again so I was even more puzzled. When I got home my mentor and fortepianist Richard Burnett rang and asked if I had won the auction. He was so pleased and then asked if that dealer was at the auction and if he had bid. I told him he hadn't and that he seemed very grumpy. I then got suspicious and discovered that Richard had threatened never to do business with the guy again if he bid for the mandolin (and Richard spent a lot of money with this dealer on instruments)! Richard had also given me money on account for some concerts I had coming up with him so that I could afford to bid at all! So, thanks to him on many levels that I own that Vinaccia. That instrument is called Vinny! It was another 3 years before I had enough money to get it restored but finally, in 1994, I did and started playing it in concert. Vinny was always a rather cantankerous old instrument but it did play and sounded beautiful. Vinny is now retired from the concert hall.
In 1994 Hugo D'Alton sadly passed away. Hugo had been my teacher for 11 years and I was very fond of him. He had two main Emberghers and two main former students: myself and Sue Mossop, and he left us one Embergher each. Hugo kindly left me the 1958 5b. It has an unusual tone for an Embergher and is very loud. I tend to use it for altered tuning pieces or for orchestral work. Try as I might, that instrument never really got into my heart and under my skin like Baby did, but I do enjoy it and use it regularly. Not surprisingly, I named it Hugo.
In 2000 I put word out in the mandolin community that I was looking for an octave mandola (octave mandolin as some people refer to them), preferably an Embergher or Pecoraro. Soon afterwards, I got a phone call from Paul Marquis who'd I'd known since I was a child and who owned a 1985 Pecoraro. He was offering to let me buy it on two conditions: that I played it in public, and that I sold it back to him if I ever wanted to sell it. I accepted the conditions gratefully and bought it. It took a while of fiddling with the set up and the strings to get it sounding right but then it just kept getting better. When I first started playing it I discovered that it was built for someone with wider fingertips and bigger hands than me and my fingers kept getting stuck between the pairs of strings! So it is called Beast! I adore it now though and even played it on my last CD. I play it in most concerts for a piece or two.
In about 2006 I had a little money in the bank and had long dreamed of commissioning a copy of Vinny. Vinny was very frail and I stopped playing him in concert in 2005 as it felt bad dragging that poor old mandolin around the country in my car in all weathers. Also, I had never dared fly with Vinny and it seemed a nice idea to be able to take an 18th century mandolin abroad with me as well. I had recently been introduced to the luthier Martin Bowers who lived in Essex (East England). He had taken over maintenance of all my instruments and I liked his style and his attention to detail. I also liked him a lot as a person. I asked if he would consider making a copy of Vinny, and he was reluctant at first but then decided he would. The result is stunning—looks incredible and sounds absolutely amazing. It is easy and fun to play. It bankrupt me but it was worth it! I took delivery of it in January, 2008. Its working name was Son-of-Vinny but whilst building it I got an email from Martin that said "that mandolin of yours throws up problems I wasn't expecting, is very time consuming and demanding... it MUST be a WOMAN!" so he named it "VIN-ESSA." When I finally got it home we discussed possible names and finally decided on "Junior."
I regularly do solo recitals where I use three of the five (Baby, Junior and Beast). British composer David Bedford recently wrote a very substantial and funky Toccata for me. It uses considerably altered tuning instead of GG,DD,AA,EE it's EG,BD,AA,C#E so I often keep Hugo tuned like that and take him as well to play that piece on. Its fun, and I introduce each instrument to the audience by name.
Mandolin Cafe: You played mandolin on the soundtrack for the blockbuster movie Captain Corelli's Mandolin. Were you the sole mandolinist, or were there others?
Alison Stephens: There were two mandolin players on many sessions and I mostly played 2nd. The other player was jazz guitarist John Paricelli (credited as Giovanni Paricelli on movie and CD). He does a lot of film session work (as do I) and plays guitar (both classical and jazz), banjo and mandolin. He's a good player and a really nice guy. I'd worked with him before. He already knew the film score composer Stephen Warbeck and is friends with him. So it was logical that he was the main player. Also, at the time, I had a very heavy touring schedule with Captain Corelli the Stage show (which started in 1999—the film wasn't released until May 2001) and was unable to do all the recording sessions.
Mandolin Cafe: What was the chain of events that led to you being selected for that job?
Alison Stephens: The main fixer (English orchestral word for agent/orchestral manager) was a very prominent film fixer I had worked for before, the author (Louis de Bernières) had recommended me, and the composer was musical director of the Royal Shakespeare Company for whom I had just finished touring (9 month tour of The Taming of the Shrew as a theater musician), so I actually don't know which of those three reasons it was or if it was a combination of them all!
Mandolin Cafe: What were the recording sessions like? Was it mostly live ensemble playing, or were you adding (punching in) over the top of already recorded parts?
Alison Stephens: Unusually, for a film, we mostly played alongside the rest of the orchestra (although generally in big studios like Abbey Road you are shut away in a little box or partitioned off (for sound engineering reasons), so we recorded alongside the rest of them. Mostly on films they record "sections" together, so they will put down the bulk of the orchestra together and then over-dub soloists and sections such as special percussion effects, plucked sections, choirs, etc. But Corelli was done mostly as a whole unit.
All the score sessions were done in London and I never saw anyone directly connected to the film except the director and the composer, but John Paricelli and a couple of others were actually filmed "acting/playing" as a Greek band in the film so they got to go to Cephalonia and were on camera and everything! Not me though, sadly!
Mandolin Cafe: Your web site indicates you've been on many other soundtracks as well.
Alison Stephens: Most recently I was on the soundtrack for The Queen (with Helen Mirren as The Queen), The Golden Compass, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Little Ashes and many other older movies and foreign films and art house stuff. I also do the occasional TV ad.
Mandolin Cafe: What attracted you to the mandolin?
Alison Stephens: When I was a very little girl some of my earliest memories are of my Dad playing his old De Meglio bowlback mandolin. He was pretty much self-taught, having played from childhood. He'd taken his mandolin to war with him in North Africa and loved playing, mainly by ear and often playing along to things on LP or the radio. He liked most styles of music but seemed particularly taken with the music of Greece.
As a three-year old I used to insist on sitting on his lap so he had no choice but to play his instrument "around me." My Dad was a very talented businessman, sportsman, poet, artist as well as his fondness for music and the mandolin so it was just one of his many hobbies and interests. When he died, I was 7 years old. At about that time it was suggested by the local church choir master and my primary school music teacher that I was very musical and that I should take up an instrument. When asked my answer was of course "mandolin." They tried in vain for me to play piano or violin or something sensible but "mandolin" was always my reply. Mum, quite rightly, thought I was too small to play the mandolin and also didn't know how to get me a teacher.
My interest in music was largely musicals and church singing so she thought I would probably like more classical type music. Classical mandolin teachers were very thin on the ground in the late 70s! She asked about an instrument every now and then and the answer was always "mandolin."
In the meantime I had found an old EP of my Dad's of Hugo D'Alton playing four pieces including Beethoven Sonatina in C and Calace's Prelude No.2. I used to sit on my bed for hours listening to the record with Dad's old beaten up mandolin (with missing strings) and pretend I was Hugo and pretend to play along.
Finally when I was 11 and about to start secondary school and was still refusing to take up an instrument unless it was the mandolin, Mum set about finding me a teacher. It was a tough job but finally she was put in touch with Hugo D'Alton. He answered the phone and listened to Mum and then said "I don't teach, especially not children."
Eventually he agreed to meet me—I was SO excited. We set out on the very long and tedious journey from South London to North London. The lesson was far from conventional (as was Hugo!) and after busking my way through a G Major scale (I had NO idea what I was actually doing but Hugo wanted me to try and work out a G major scale without any help, so I tried!). It seemed the evidence he was looking for and he agreed to teach me on an adhoc basis.
Lessons were fairly erratic, often every two or three months but Hugo would never take a penny and often they lasted up to four hours! It was a very intense experience for a young child, but I was SO happy as I was finally playing the mandolin! Hugo was my mandolin teacher for 11 years right up to when I left college.
Mandolin Cafe: What kind of classes or lesson schedule and other responsibilities make up your schedule at Trinity?
Alison Stephens: I teach one day a week at Trinity. The time commitment varies according to how many students I have. Often there is only one or two there at a time. I teach individually on each visit for between 1.5 and 3 hours for each student depending on circumstance, etc... I also occasionally organize classes with the guitar students on subjects like orchestral playing, or West End Shows or sight-reading or ensemble playing. For many years there wasn't a prescribed class for mandolin or guitar ensemble so I often held them but they have a weekly timetabled class now for guitar ensemble and the mandolin is nearly always included as well these days. It's a very valuable thing for them all to do. I've also held "mandolin taster" classes for players of other instruments (particularly aimed at violin or guitar students) to get an idea about the mandolin and get them interested in trying it. Several students (who are first study on other instruments) at Trinity play the mandolin quite ernestly as a result of these classes. I also organize a masterclass with a top player as often as the budget allows—often only once every two years, but it is a great chance for the students to meet and listen to and be taught by one of the truly brilliant players around now. I try and choose people who have their own ideas and who contrast each other so in the last few years we've had Caterina Lichtenberg, Alon Sariel (Israel) and Sebastiaan de Grebber (Netherlands). In principal I also would like to invite players who are not strictly classical but in practice, I haven't managed it yet!
Mandolin Cafe: You wear a lot of hats. If we asked you to describe yourself in terms of "day job," what would that be?
Alison Stephens: My "day job" is mainly playing concerts, working with theater companies, playing in orchestras, editing/composing and commissioning music for Astute Music Ltd. to publish (I'm their Mandolin Editor), teaching classical guitar privately at home to local kids, teaching mandolin privately at home to kids and adults and promoting my career!
Alison Stephens - Calace Prelude No.14
Mandolin Cafe: A lot more mandolin players seem to be exploring classical music these days, but not always as their first interest. By example, it's not unusual for a bluegrass or jazz mandolin player to be studying something by Bach or Vivaldi. This is very positive in our opinion, but sometimes leads to awkward interpretations of the music. You have such a wonderful approach and feel to the music you play. If you were to offer three basic tips to a mandolin player wanting to explore classical mandolin further, what would those be?
Alison Stephens: This is a tricky subject across all instruments but is particularly marked with the mandolin because a much larger proportion of the players are primarily either bluegrass or folk (Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia) players. My personal feeling is that music is music and that there is room for everyone to try anything they feel drawn to and give it their own twist. The only thing that annoys me slightly is if a player of a different genre dabbles in their own way with the music of another genre and then purports to be an expert or a leading light in that new genre! I do also think that we can all learn from one another even if what someone else does is not to your taste or even if you consider it to be "wrong."
I think I play classical music mostly because it is the form of music that has always connected with me the most. I have a natural instinct about it, if you like, its in my blood. If someone wants to "get into" a particular style of music or genre I think they need it to get under their skin, so they understand it on a subliminal level. I've always listened to classical music the most (ALL classical music, not necessarily classical mandolin, actually, if I'm honest, quite rarely classical mandolin!) but I also love many forms of music. I listen to Scottish folk quite a bit and can rattle off the occasional tune but I know I'd never put myself out in public with this music for many reasons but mainly because I know there are SO many people who instinctively understand and breath it in a way I don't and I would be insulting those people by daring to believe I could do "their" music better justice than them. If I do play music that has a foot in another genre I endeavour to do it my way and effectively straddle the genres—I don't try and make it faithful to the genre or make it something that I am not. It becomes my "slightly classical" rendition, unique to me. The same really applies to me playing a classical piece that wasn't originally written for the instrument: by playing it on the mandolin, inevitably it will be different to the original instrument's rendition, but I try and make a version that lets the original intentions and spirit through but is also true to me and my instrument.
So, it's a tough question to answer but my three tips would depend on how serious they were about classical mandolin. Lets assume that they had an eye on really getting it under their skin and really trying to take it fully on board rather than just dabble. My first advice would be to listen to as much classical music on as many different instruments from as wide a period in history as is possible (preferably NOT mandolin!), my second would be to go away to a practice room and experiment with as many different sounds, dictions, tone colors, techniques as they can find on their mandolin and my third would be to start with a piece (or pieces) that they truly feel connected or drawn to.
Mandolin Cafe: You were diagnosed with cancer in 2008, and the story of where you are now is nothing short of amazing. Can you share the experience with us?
Alison Stephens: Yes, in late 2008 I was in the middle of a tour with Welsh National Opera playing onstage in costume part in Verdi's Othello. It involved lots of commuting the 300+ miles to and from Cardiff (home of Welsh National Opera) and my home in Cambridgeshire. I knew I wasn't well and hadn't been for several months. I was plowing on regardless especially since four separate general family doctors had all told me I had nothing more than a hormone imbalance and was run down. I had several tests that all came back negative but in the middle of the tour I was called for another one and was diagnosed with cervical cancer (a clinical diagnosis pending histology results). I was supposed to be recording a pasta advert for TV that afternoon and was advised to cancel but I was straight back at the Opera Tour later that week and told the tour manager my news. He was absolutely wonderful and understanding and told me "we can play it your way, if you want time off, no problem, if you don't, no problem. I'll look out for you."
As further diagnostic tests were run and then the subsequent six-week daily course of radiotherapy and chemotherapy, I did have to take one or two nights off the opera but managed everything else including recitals! Being able to carry on performing and playing was what made it all tolerable. I experienced the most amazing outpouring of love and concern from everyone; my family and friends supported me brilliantly, my colleagues were incredibly supportive and tried their best to make all concerts and performances as "normal" and unstressful as possible, and I got sent everything from pieces of music, to CDs to flowers from many people including those I hardly even knew.
By Christmas 2008 I had finished treatment and although I was rather pale, thin and "battle-weary" I was fine and was determined to just get back at everything. In June 2008, before my diagnosis, I had scheduled the dates for recording my new CD for Chandos with Craig Ogden (guitar). They had been set for January 22-23, just one month after end of treatment. I was determined not to cancel. The recording went very well and it struck me that I had been incredibly fortunate in so many ways to have had the opportunity to actually get this disc recorded so I decided to donate my royalties to a well known British Cancer Charity called Macmillan Cancer Support as they had provided me with lots of information and support when I was first diagnosed.
The next few months carried on fairly normally and I got stronger and began to feel just like my old self. My very good friend and colleague Mike Maran (the storyteller from Captain Corelli's Mandolin—we toured together for over 500+ shows across 10 years!) had been diagnosed with bowel cancer in mid-2008 and we had already been great support and help to each other and saw each other frequently (we were being treated in the same hospital!).
Mike and I gradually realized that we both wanted to do something to "say thank you" for the excellent help we had received. We decided in April 2009 that we were going to use the club we had formed in hospital (Captain Corelli's Cambridge Cancer Club) to raise money for cancer charities. We set about making it happen and arranged for Mike to ride a Red Vespa from Edinburgh to Rome and back to Cambridge in August, 2009. We also organized Gala Fund raising Captain Corelli performances in Edinburgh and Cambridge; several other Gala Fund raising concerts that I played at, a 5K run that I ran alongside my partner and three musical colleagues, in addition to the CD royalties. Several friends of ours also held parties or held musical soirees to raise funds and several of the performances we gave held a "retiring collection" for our fund too. We had massive press and TV support (they were particularly fascinated by Mike's Vespa ride to Rome!). Between April and November 2009 we raised a total of over £23,000 (about $37,000). The last activity for our funds will be in February, 2010 when the Brighton based Mandolin Orchestra The Fretful Federation give a concert in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support.
In the midst of all this charitable activity I was on three monthly check-ups and at one they decided I had an infection, but to be cautious they also arranged for a scan alongside the antibiotics. What they had seen was indeed an infection but by an amazing stroke of luck, the scan revealed a new tumor which was small and entirely symptomless. It was a direct growth from the old tumor and was only spotted because of the precautionary scan. It was growing up a chain of lymph nodes in my abdomen towards my liver.
Although it was a massive blow to be re-diagnosed, I was incredibly fortunate that they had found it at all while it was still treatable. So in late June, 2009 I started another 6-week daily course of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. This time my radiotherapy was on a cutting edge machine called TomoTherapy which was developed in Wisconsin and so new that it was only one of two in the whole of the UK. Without it there was no hope of a cure but with it there was a pretty good chance. The doctors (my wonderful lovely musically-appreciative doctors!) were worried about the implications of putting my body through more treatment only 6 months after the end of the previous lot but there was no choice. I buttoned down the hatches and was determined to complete the treatment (they were willing to pull the plug on the treatment after 4 weeks if my body wasn't coping). I even carried on running training for the first 4 weeks. I made it through the entire 6-week course. My doctors were amazed that my body stood up to it. Once again, I completed all touring and playing commitments during treatment.
Then the waiting game started. There was no point having a scan for at least 6-7 weeks after treatment finished. Finally on October 1, exactly two months after the end of the 2nd treatment, I had a scan. I had been warned that more treatment was not possible and that if there was any cancer left then it would palliative care only from then on. I had also been told that if the treatment was a complete success the chances are that I would go on to make a full recovery. You can imagine what it felt like to be sitting in that consulting room waiting for those scan results. It was clear. Completely back to normal, not a trace of cancer or anything. Phew!
My doctors at Addenbrookes have become friends (as have Mike's surgeons and doctors) and attended many of the events and concerts we organized. They saved both of our lives and we are incredibly grateful.
Alison Stephens' Recordings
Souvenirs - with Craig Ogden, guitar (2009)
Calace Concertos Nos.1 & 2 - with Steven Devinem, piano (2007)
Con Espressione (2004)
Tapestry - with Lauren Scott, harp (2003)
Mandolin Concerto in G by J.N. Hummel - with London Mozart Players (2001)
Music from the Novels of Louis de Bernières - with Craig Ogden, guitar (1999)
Music for Mandolin - with Richard Burnett, fortepiano & Sue Mossop, mandolin (1991)
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- "battersea" bill
Incidentally, all the recorder players on that score (and there were 4 of them) all come from very classical circles not folk....so it was a deliberate "plan"!
Just so there's no misunderstanding, I had no quibbles with the music. Indeed, I was quite delighted by it, and was pleasantly surprised to see Alison Stephens' name in the credits - and to even get top billing, considering banjo was featured most prominently. In retrospect, Mr. Desplat's plan worked very nicely, as there was definitely something more than the ordinary about the music - something quite fantastic, in keeping with the overall magical tone of the film.