Alex Kelly @90
On Sunday 30th June, Alexander Kelly, father of Catriona Kelly and me, Grandfather of Alex Davan-Wetton and Millie Davan-Wetton, would have been ninety.
The fact that his life was cut brutally short at the age of
sixty seven won't dampen the enthusiasm with which the remaining family and wide extended family of former students and colleagues will celebrate. Indeed, part of the idea of this celebration is for us to give it large for someone who himself gave unremittingly for the entire sixty seven years of his life; and for whom, even now, there is a discernible line of patronal connection through several generations of students and colleagues.
Some of my favourite stories about my father are centred on the time when I was a student at the Royal Academy of Music; and for the first time in my life, my home world and my 'work' world collided: at the time when I won a scholarship to the RAM, I was joint first study piano and cello, and my father requested that he should teach me.
The Academy reaction was jaw-dropping: they disapproved totally of the idea that I would have lessons with my father, and attempts were made (coughs, splutters, shuffling,
'I SAY...') to dissuade Professor Kelly from taking on his daughter as a pupil; but he remained determined, and ultimately, the arrangement was sanctioned. Through gritted teeth.
However, in a way that was characteristic of him, AK did not forget the slight (intended or unintended as it was) and when it came to the end of my first year, I recall that I was running upstairs to a lesson, when AK came out of his room. He beckoned me in, and closed the door.
'This is your confidential end of year report for piano' he said 'and I'm going to read it to you. He coughed:
"Alison is innately musical. She takes after her mother"'.
My time at the RAM was untypical of most students' experiences, because everything was filtered twice: once, through my own lens; and then the second time through the 'back home' experience of listening to my father describing his day, talking about things and people that I was encountering myself. It was often challenging, because my view of the world at the RAM did sometimes conflict with my father; and there were inevitable awkward episodes when some hapless student connected with the considerable Kelly rage.
His I should say, not mine; and I at times I would have to observe a meltdown in the canteen or histrionics in the pub when the recipient of the fury was reduced to hapless tears. Knowing how to manage these situations was often beyond my skills, and there were embarrassing moments; but we rubbed along together successfully for four years.
On one occasion I took a piano trio I was working with to a lesson with my father. The pianist was not one of AK's pupils, and to begin with, my father was almost delicate in his handling of the situation: 'John, less pedal please' he requested politely, gesturing towards the sustaining pedal.
On we went, the pianist still glueing his foot to the pedal, and once again my father butted in politely: 'John, a little less pedal please'.
I saw the clouds descending as we ploughed through the development section of the Gypsy Rondo, the pianist still clouding ever bar with a surfeit of pedal; and then it came:
'GET YOUR FOOT OFF THE FUCKING PEDAL JOHN!'
As I recall, the rest of the piece was pedal free...
However, it was almost always the most extraordinary privilege and delight to be part of his world in that red brick building on Marylebone Road, and to develop an entirely autonomous relationship with my father through the world of my own student life: as my four student years went on, I used to take pianist colleagues from other professors along to my lessons to rehearse my cello repertoire, using my piano lessons as a way of trying out my cello/piano duo repertoire with my father as coach. The people I played with then are still amongst my dearest friends now, and those sessions were priceless. It was liberating to work with pianists who were not the pupils of my father, but life-enhancing to bring people I was working with into what felt like a magic circle.
I can't say exactly what it was about my father that made him the wonderful teacher and mentor that he was: no doubting his incredible intellect, nor his musical breadth, depth, comprehension and ability; but it was his ability to share all of these qualities that probably made him transcendent as a teacher: I still hear people all over the world referring to his capacity to bring people to musical life, to fan whatever tiny pilot light was on offer into full-blown conflagration...but above all, it was ability to teach anyone who wanted to learn; his complete lack of interest in being an empire-building teacher certainly distinguished him from many successful teachers over the last seventy years, and his talent for spotting hidden, or reticently expressed ability, was quite remarkable.
He would go the extra mile, or indeed, furlong, for anyone who studied with him; and there were times when he would spend hours with a student in distress.
There were students who came to stay while they sorted out an episode of difficulty - the most extreme example of which was when one student came for a night when he failed an end of year exam, and ended up staying for three years.
Fifty seven years of my life as compared with ninety of his, twenty three lived on some heavenly cloud; and there still isn't a day that goes past when I don't think of him, don't refer to him in my teaching or my playing or my use of words.
Alexander Kelly - alive in your daughters and your grandchildren every day. We will give you the best possible party on Sunday