DCSIMG

Obituary: Alison Stephens, mandolinist

Alison Stephens, mandolinist. Born: 1 March, 1970, in Bickley, Kent. Died: 10 October, 2010, in Cambridge, aged 40.

Many in Edinburgh have lost a friend, and music lovers internationally have lost an inspirational figure with the death of Alison Stephens at the age of 40.

Festival-goers will know Stephens from her duo and solo recitals, and not least the famous stage production of Louis de Bernires' Captain Corelli's Mandolin that premiered in the tiny upstairs theatre at Valvona & Crolla delicatessen in 1999.

With Anne Evans on piano, Stephens' sunny, pixie-ish presence at the mandolin stool (and occasional stints on tuba, trumpet, guitar and percussion) made a wry complement to the rambunctious storytelling of Mike Maran and Valvona's supremo Philip Contini, and the show became a Fringe perennial that charmed audiences from London to Hong Kong.

Strangely, de Bernires' romantic yarn carried fairytale echoes of Stephens' own story. Just as the child Iannis finds the mandolin that had once belonged to Corelli in the ruins of his great grandfather's house, so the young Bromley girl climbed into the attic of the family home four years after her father's death and re-emerged with the instrument he had played in barrack rooms across North Africa, Sicily and Burma during the Second World War.

It was the 1980s, and the instrument was deeply unfashionable, but the 11-year-old would not be dissuaded. The eccentric mandolin maestro of her father's generation, Hugo D'alton, was prevailed upon to teach her - and she was a quick learner. By the age of 17 she had played a concerto at the Barbican, and five years later was the first Professor of Mandolin at Trinity College in London, and well on her way to becoming Britain's leading player and populariser of the classical mandolin.

The life this vocation brought was exhausting, peripatetic and rich with both acclaim and challenge. Stephens played with the best musicians in the best concert halls and opera houses, and cultivated pupils and new audiences in far-flung (and sometimes far from glamorous) settings.

She toured the world with the Royal Shakespeare Company, composed her own pieces for the instrument, and developed a published repertoire of mandolin music for players at every level.

One week she might be with the Bratislava Chamber and then Johannesburg Symphony orchestras (often performing mandolin concertos, or premiering a new piece that had been written for her); the next it would be film soundtrack or TV advert sessions (you can hear her on the ads for pasta sauce), and teaching workshops.

And the critics were captivated. Stephens' reputation for technical proficiency was beyond question, and it was matched by a quality of character in her playing.In the right hands the mandolin can be both assertive and exuberant, and Stephens' cherished instruments (they all had nicknames) seemed crafted to share the spectrum of her effervescent personality.

There was empathy, drama and wit in performances that soared from lightning arpeggios and intense percussive chords to the most delicate romantic diversions.

Later photographs would emphasise the glamorous side of an attractive young woman, but her many friends knew her as a whirlwind of tomboyish enthusiasm and a gregarious mixer (and also on occasion a tenacious tackler for Charlton Athletic Ladies' teams on the football pitch).

She was a natural storyteller, and her irrepressible East London vowels lent a pragmatic authority to a catalogue of solo shows in which she interwove personal anecdotes with the history and music of the mandolin. She jumped at every chance to spread the word in the media, and her BBC Radio 4 mandolin documentary was nominated for a Sony broadcasting award.

Without the support of an orchestral home or mainstream teaching life there was a solitary aspect to Stephens' musical crusade that was balanced by a network of devoted family and close allies, including the harpist Lauren Scott and guitarist Craig Ogden, who were each also her virtuoso partners on stage and in the studio.

A generous and loyal friend, she chose well in her domestic life, too; her partnership with Mitch Harris brought adventure and happiness in good times, and great support in bad.

And almost by accident, Captain Corelli's Mandolin was to become one of the most enduring and fondest strands of her life. She played on the film soundtrack and a BBC radio adaptation, and along the way Louis de Bernires became a firm friend and sometime co-performer.

The Corelli gang from Edinburgh were rarely idle for long, either; buttressed by the technical support of the redoubtable Jock Brown, Stephens, Evans and Maran took the stage some 600 times over the years, making friends and fans in sell-out audiences wherever they went.

And "Corelli" would come to shape and lighten some of Stephens' darkest days. It was after her diagnosis with cancer that she found herself in Cambridge's Addenbrooke's hospital a corridor away from Mike Maran, who had suffered a similar diagnosis.

Amid the most gruelling treatments, the pair concocted a typically colourful fundraising scheme; and a few months later, Maran undertook the expedition of riding his red Vespa scooter from Edinburgh to Rome.

Stephens, meanwhile, was at home, assembling and publishing the daily blog, and chivvying him on by text and e-mail. The pair raised more than 24,000 for cancer charities.

Brimming with vitality and charm, Stephens' final Edinburgh performances in August of this year were testament to a spirit that refused to be dimmed by illness. Barely two weeks before her death she was recording at Abbey Road for the new Harry Potter movie. She will be remembered not just among the cognoscenti who know her role in the revival of the classical mandolin, or even among the numberless listeners who enjoyed her exceptional musical gifts from radio, CD or stage, but wherever there is appreciation of a personality that burns bright.

She is survived by partner Mitchell, her mother and stepfather Jackie and Steve, brothers Andy and Jeremy and sister, Sue.

 
 
 

Back to the top of the page