After the thrill of the American tour, it was back down to earth with a bit of a bump this week. In fact, not just a bump, but a bit of a shock. When I heard that John Alley, the keyboard player in the LSO was retiring, I assumed that it was a mistimed April fool or a miscalculation on the birthday spreadsheet. How could he be retiring? John has been part of the LSO ‘family’ (as we have to call ourselves these days) for as long as I can remember. The unmistakeable white haired pianist is not just part of the fixtures and fittings of the orchestra, but of London musical life. There are very few musicians who have affected so many musicians of all ages and abilities as John. Yes, we all know about the internationally famous musicians, the heavily promoted conductors and soloists. We all know how important they are because their agents tell us. They win the awards, the OBEs, the Grammys and Gramophones. But, you mention the name John Alley to anybody who really works in music in London, anybody, and they will smile and have a tale to tell. I could fill the internet with personal recollections, be they his witty one liners which puncture over inflated conductors egos in rehearsal or a raise of an eyebrow during an audition which says more than any ensuing conversation, or the sight of the long white hair and the pencil behind the ear which reassured me during solo outings. John has just been there.
His enthusiasm and wit have marked him out from others; it’s the sign of a great musician that he remains as engaged and interested when he’s been there and done that many times over. I can still remember his performance in a taster concert with Marin Alsop, maybe 12 years ago. She was explaining to the audience the concept of variations on a theme in relation to Brahms variations on a theme by Haydn. To illustrate the point, he improvised ever more ridiculous variations on ‘Happy Birthday’. The possibilities seemed endless and I think he could have gone on all night if only he hadn’t brought the house down first. If you want to see him in action, watch the legendary video below from the Proms where during a cadenza in Shostakovich’s, Suite for the Hypothetically Murdered, he downs a pint in record time.
I’ve been playing with John for over twenty years now. He’d probably be surprised to hear that, but I remember very clearly the first time we made music together. I walked into a room at the Guildhall in 1993. I was terrified. I was about to audition in front of the LSO wind section to gain a place, or not, on the Shell/LSO scholarship scheme. As a young player it was a terrifying experience to walk into a room full of your heroes, and await their judgement. I walked into the practice room next door to run through the Prokofiev sonata with the pianist. I was expecting a student or a someone who’d rather be doing anything else than playing for a load of wannabes, and so as I opened the door, I was astonished to see the pencil behind the ear and the long white hair sat at the piano. Having been to many LSO concerts, I knew exactly who he was and couldn’t believe my luck. He turned round and thrust out a hand. “Hello! I’m John.”
“I know,” I replied.
I relaxed instantly. He calmed me down simply by being there and for my part, I couldn’t believe that I was getting the real thing for my audition. It felt like I was getting special treatment, having such a legend play at my audition - but I wasn’t, that’s just how he works. But when we played, it was special treatment. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Petroushka in the Proms, a student audition or a concert on the floor for 5 year olds, John puts his all in.
It’s impossible to put a figure on it, but there must be very few musicians in London who haven’t played with John at some point. Maybe we should start a list - I’m sure just the number of people he’s played with in auditions over the years would add up to thousands. His gift for listening, putting people at their ease and of course, his brilliant musicianship has been there for many at the start of their careers and some of us have been lucky to have him there throughout. Imagine the stories that he could tell...Having worked with normal people as well as conductors and singers and composers...you could almost forgive him for being a little big headed and out of touch, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Here’s one of my personal recollections for you. My son’s regular accompanist had to pull out of playing for his grade 8 exam a few years ago. As it was in London, I asked John for some numbers of pianists he might know who’d be willing and able, maybe one of his students perhaps. Without hesitation, he said, “I’ll do it.”
I quickly explained that I wasn’t fishing for him to do it and didn’t expect him to accompany my 16 year old son for an exam...but he insisted. He wouldn’t put a figure on his services and just asked for a pint...even though, there was no piano cadenza. I'm delighted that my son, like his father, encountered John at a key moment in his musical life. Enthusiastic, talented and one of the good guys. There aren’t enough pints in the world to say thank you to people like John.
This is my personal blog. All views are my own and are not endorsed by any of the organisations I work for.