In this series of interviews, we talk to renowned Mandolin players, makers and enthusiasts.
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Mandolin Interview – Alison Stephens
Alison Stephens is a leading exponent of the classical mandolin in the UK. She was the first graduate of mandolin from Trinity College of Music, London, and was appointed as a teacher upon graduation. Following her professional concerto debut at The Barbican, London, she has played across the UK and around the world and has many radio broadcasts to her credit, including her own BBC Radio 4 show that was subsequently nominated for a Sony Award.
In addition to concerto performances, Alison regularly gives recitals either solo or in duo with guitar, harp or piano. Alison’s CD with Craig Ogden (guitar), “Music from the Novels of Louis de Bernières”, was “Pick of the Week” in the Daily Telegraph and sold over 10,000 copies in the first three months.
Alison has also worked on other projects in connection with “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” and has several other recordings to her credit, including an album of romantic solo music from Italy and Japan, an album of contemporary music for mandolin and harp and Hummel’s Concerto in G, with the London Mozart Players.
1. How did you get started in music? Was the mandolin your first instrument?
When I was about 7 my teacher at school started to tell my Mum that I was musical. Just after that I joined the church choir. The choir master said the same thing and they both suggested that I take up an instrument. “Mandolin” was my answer. My Dad played it when I was little. Of course this didn’t seem terribly practical so they ignored me and hoped I’d come up with piano or something instead.
This stand-off lasted for nearly 4 years. Finally when I was about 11 and still answering “mandolin” when asked which instrument I’d like to learn they decided I was big enough and my Mum went about the unenviable task of trying to find me a teacher!
2. You learned to play with the great Hugo D’Alton. Tell us something about him and about his teaching methods?
My Mum contacted Hugo with great trepidation as he had been my Dad’s hero. All the other people she’d asked had drawn a blank or were in North London (we were in South East London) so she decided that if we had to travel right across London anyway then it might as well be for Hugo as for someone else. Hugo said he didn’t teach but would get me started. So….. on a nice June day in 1981 me and Mum turned up on Hugo’s door-step.
He was very shocked by how small I was (I’m not terribly large now and when I was 11 I still took Mothercare age 7-8 clothes!). However he proceeded to set my instrument up and off we went……. He was still teaching me 11 years later in 1992. Hugo was a very charismatic and eccentric character. His wife Micky was an angel so she helped me feel more comfortable at their house. Hugo always referred to me as “l’ill Ali” (Sue Mossop was of course “big Sue”). His constant questioning of standards and sound and tone was extremely difficult to cope with but has definitely left its mark in a good way.
Any praise was always tempered: e.g. “That was a good strong performance. For a girl”. And he was constantly disappearing to the end of the garden to see if he could still hear me. If he couldn’t then I had to play louder! As I got older, my lessons got longer and I started going on my own. By the time I was 16 or so I had lessons once a fortnight (they had been once every 6 weeks or so). We had “beanie boys” for lunch (baked beans on toast to you and me, beanie boys to Hugo!) and our lessons usually lasted at least 4 hours and usually incorporated at least 5 cups of tea.
He had a total fixation with making me strong, in every sense. To this end he frequently exploded in a fit of rage at me. I’d slam the mandolin in its case and storm out of the house shouting back at him. He’d stand on the doorstep and shout after me down the street “If you leave this house young lady, you’re never coming back” and I’d storm off shouting back “ I never want to come back”.
Then a fortnight later, after radio silence, I’d turn up on his door step and he’d open the door and say “it’s l’ill Ali, come in” and we’d carry on as if nothing had happened. Then, after a few hours I’d ask why he’d shouted at me and he’d say “it’s a tough world out there. I need to make you strong” (??!!)
3. After you graduated, you yourself became the mandolin tutor at Trinity College of Music. How popular today is the instrument with students?
And what does the course of study look like – for example, is it all classical or do students study other styles?
The Trinity mandolin course is going from strength to strength. We had our first “first study mandolin” student since me (there had been a handful of second study students before that) about 6 years ago. Last year we had three first study students at once! One graduated with a 2:1 in performance BMus, one was a postgrad who got an upper Distinction and won the Gold medal for the whole college (George Hadjineophytou) and the other goes into his final year in the Autumn.
In the past year or so we have had several applications from Germany and the USA as well as enquiries from Japan, Slovenia and Brazil. Unfortunately for various reasons these applicants were either not offered places or were unable to take the places up they were offered. So next year it’s just one student, but it’s encouraging how many enquiries we get.
The students are really expected to play mainly classical but most have an ongoing interest in other styles as well which I encourage them to keep up with. As far as assessments go it’s mainly classical but there is definitely room for their own interests. For instance, one student I taught decided to do for his final exam: several classical pieces, a contemporary piece for mandolin and harp, an Irish set played with a bouzouki playing friend of his, and two Scott Joplin Rags with a steel string guitarist. He played half the recital on a classical Embergher style instrument and half on a Gibson A.
The programme went down very well and he got a very good mark. Another student did “Butterfly’s Day out” by Mark O’Connor for Mandolin, Cello and Bass (as conquered by Mark O’Connor, Yo-yo Ma and Edgar Meyer) as part of his second year recital. He performed that on an F style instrument. The course is entirely structured to match in with the requirements for traditional strings (violin, cello etc…).
The technical and scale requirements reflect this. There are also various set requirements on the way. For instance, a classical Concerto movement must be performed for the 2nd year exam. It must be performed with their own written cadenza. (students normally do the 3rd movement of the Hummel Concerto in G). In the 3rd year they must perform a solo piece from before c.1780 and a piece of Calace. Etc…
4. When did you play your first gig/concert in front of a real audience? How did it go?
I can’t really remember to be honest. I certainly remember entering the BMG competitions. I think my first was the beginners’ class in 1981 or 2. I also performed as a special guest for a local choir concert when I was about 14 or so. I went on to sing with that choir for 4 years. I played in their concerts several times and the members were always very supportive and kind to me. By the time I was 16 I had won a music scholarship to boarding school.
There I got plentiful opportunities to perform – on mandolin, on trumpet (started when I was 13) and in choirs. My first professional concert was when I was 17 at the concert with Sue Mossop at the Barbican Concert Hall doing the Vivaldi double Concerto.
What an experience and opportunity that was!!! I was petrified. It was one of the most exciting, exhilarating and challenging episodes in my life! Mum insisted that I spent my fee on something I could keep so I bought a very posh second hand camera which (although I don’t use it anymore) I still have.
5. You perform as a member of two duos: Duo Mandala, with harpist Lauren Scott; and with guitarist Craig Ogden. How does this small scale work compare with solo performances or with performances with an orchestra?
I adore playing in duos (I also play regularly with piano, usually with Steven Devine or Anne Evans). I’ve been playing with Craig for 6 years now. He is an astonishing player and musician and fantastic to play with. He is also a total nutter. We have a massive amount of fun and I think (hope) that we both get a lot out of playing together. It’s such fun to have that direct interaction with each other.
When there are only two of you the ability to interact and respond to each other’s musical ideas on the concert platform is such fun and so rewarding. Lauren and I have known each other since the first year at college and have played together regularly since 1991. We have a very close rapport in music and seem to always know what the other is thinking. We can stick to each other like glue. I have always loved the sound our instruments make together as well.
It’s such a unique and beguiling sound. I have increasingly been in demand as a solo recitalist in the past 5 years or so. I also love playing solo. I have really enjoyed expanding my solo repertoire and creating balanced programmes using three different instruments. I love that intimate feeling of just “you and them” with the audience.
Concerto work I find more challenging but very rewarding. I don’t get as many opportunities to play concertos as I do recitals but I love to do them when I can, especially the Hummel.
6. What mandolins do you own? Which one(s) is(are) your favourite(s)?
I own four instruments. All of which have names (!?): Vinny (1764 Vincentius Vinaccia mandolin), Baby (my main concert instrument – 1933 Luigi Embergher mandolin), Beast (1985 Pasquale Pecoraro mandola) and Hugo (1956 Luigi Embergher (Cerrone) mandolin). I love them all. I spend the bulk of my time playing Baby so I suppose I have the strongest bond with Baby.
7. The mandolin is not the first instrument that most people would think of in a classical context. How do other professional classical musicians regard mandolinists?
And do you think that the mandolin’s status and profile in the classical world needs to be raised? I think the mandolin is like any other instrument in the classical world. Play it well, cleanly and show how versatile and useful it can be and people will warm to it. The mandolin has often suffered from not being played in a way that makes it comparable to other instruments (for instance, lacking in diction, tone variation, volume variation).
If it is presented as a dynamic instrument it is well accepted. Of course there is prejudice but there is against any instrument. Mandolinists are, of course a bit weird but that’s OK too! I think more people need to hear the mandolin played in a musical, dynamic way and presented as an interesting, convincing instrument. That’s all.
8. Can you tell us how you have your mandolin set up, and about the strings and picks you use?
My mandolin has a custom bridge on it made out of African Blackwood. It has a reasonably high action. I get it re-fretted about once every 18 months. I used Hugo’s custom handmade strings for years (now handmade in Oxfordshire) but I always found them a little brittle sounding (very accurate and stable though) so the challenge was to find something just a little softer and equally stable and long lasting without loosing the “zing” completely.
I now use a combination developed by various people including a couple of my students: Optima D’s and G’s and Tomastik Medium A’s and E’s. I use a “Roland black” pick from Germany mostly. This is quite a new thing for me too. I used Herco Flex 50 or Flex 75 for years (custom cut and shaped). I find these strings and the Roland pick has “evened” out my playing and tone a lot. Its given me a lot more confidence too, particularly on the “big” technical stuff (Calace Preludes etc..)
9. Apart from yourself, of course, which players do you particularly admire and why?
Caterina Lichtenberg is my total hero. I’m not a massive fan of the totally “German” set-up/instrument and way of playing but Caterina makes her mandolin live and breath. It can shout from the roof tops or whisper a sorrowful melody in her hands. She’s a genius and such a natural musician. She’s also a very charming and gracious person. Of course Hugo was a huge influence on me both in a positive and negative way.
He had an astonishing facility, although his musical decisions were sometimes a little dubious (to a modern ear) and he was very much a product of his era. He was always pushing the boundaries and always asking questions of himself and his instrument. He was still very much from the “eccentric virtuoso era”. For various reasons I also have a lot of respect and admiration for Dave Grisman, Carlo Aonzo, Sebastiaan de Greber, Ugo Orlandi, Chris Thile, Simon Mayor, Gertrude Troester (now Weyhofen), Juan Carlos Munoz and so many others.
These people in their own way and own field have done SO much to further the cause of the mandolin. The mandolin across many genres is really on a roll now and it’s all down to the hard work and dedication of people mentioned above and so many others; both players and promoters/publishers.
10. Do you play any other instruments?
I play classical guitar very badly. I studied trumpet from age 13 to 1st year at college (I was originally offered joint first study trumpet and mandolin). I was OK at the trumpet and really enjoyed it (especially playing in youth orchestras and as an instrument to go on summer music courses with) but decided to focus on the mandolin. I’ve also always really enjoyed singing in choirs and at various points in the past I was in up to 5 choirs at the same time!
11. How would you like to develop as a musician in the future?
In every respect. I’m always trying to develop, always trying to improve every element of my playing and musicianship and performance. I am increasingly happy with the way I play and perform although, like anyone, I have massive room for improvement. Onwards and upwards.
12. If you had to start over again would you still choose the mandolin?
13. Do you have any advice or tips for beginning/intermediate/advanced players?
There is a great Jethro Burns quote: “my advice to all aspiring young musicians: learn to play the mandolin and nothing else. Each new instrument you learn to play only opens up another field of unemployment. As a mandolin player you may not be working but at least you know what kind of work you are out of.” I’d also add to that – listen to the sound you make, enjoy the music you are playing and strive to be the best you can be.
Now the silly ones!
14. Desert Island discs: which would be the one piece of music you would have to take? (throw in a second and third if you like!) Sheet music? Or recorded?
Recorded would have to be er…. er….. no idea…… I like so much stuff, so varied you can’t pin me down to one piece! Nope sorry…… no idea……. At anyone time I have so much music swilling around in my head I don’t really need recordings – I have a constant multi CD changer going on in my head set on “random”!!
15. What would you do if a friend sat on you favourite instrument?
Sit in a darkened room for quite some time. Then I would bounce up, claim the insurance, find another Embergher and fall in love all over again. ( I hope)
16. Anyone unfamiliar with your work can listen to sound clips at your website. What plans do you have for forthcoming CDs and performances?
I have a CD project up my sleeve…… not entirely set though so going to keep it up my sleeve for now. Performance wise, the diary is looking quite good for the next year or so. I have a lot of solo performances over next few months, several recitals with Craig Ogden (guitar) and two with Lauren Scott (harp).
Craig and I are off to South Africa on tour in March and have a lot of concerts early next year. I am going to do a workshop in Wüppertal, Germany in the conservatoire where Caterina Lichtenberg and Marga Wilden-Hüsgen teach in January.
Then next year will hopefully see this recording project (the one up my sleeve) and there are possible tours to Saudi Arabia and USA on the cards as well. Keep an eye on all my dates, workshops and recordings with my website: www.alisonstephens.com and click on “News” or “Diary”
17. And finally, what burning issues do you have that you would like to have been asked about?
I would have liked to have been asked about my broad bean harvest this year and whether my dog Mac has managed to stay free from vet visits for more than a month recently. If you’re interested, then the answers are as follows: very good, eaten several batches. They are particularly good cooked in cider with chopped up bacon and: Yes! Amazingly, Mac, the ever clumsy, has managed not to crash into any trees recently.