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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On the late Christine Jackson,
with Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Ask Alice

There are orchestral cellists, teaching cellists, principal cellists, chamber music cellists and cello soloists. And then there was Christine Jackson — all of these rolled into one, and an ebullient, glowing, glittery character besides — who died this week at only fifty-three.

I first met Christine — already a near-legend in British terms, as she had as a teen starred in the televised Du Pré masterclasses — when I was twenty-three and had just been allowed to work in the UK. She was barely twenty.

We met at what was then called Opera 80 but which has since been re-named English Touring Opera, where I was shocked to learn that there were only two cellos — Christine and me. Opera 80's ethos was both simple and brilliant: to take Così fan tutte and Die Fledermaus all over the country, putting opera on in places generally reckoned too small to host opera and for audiences mostly unable to afford London prices.

Christine and I hit it off instantly, even though I apparently told my husband on the phone that she was outrageous. (In my defence, she was outrageous.) For a start, there were those trousers. While the rest of us, in pokey little changing rooms from Weston-super-Mare to Ely to Kendal to York to Scunthorpe, were changing into long black skirts and long-sleeved blouses, Christine was — quite literally — lying on the floor, cursing while attempting to peel her skin-tight black leather trousers over her slimline legs, and not caring in the least about our quips at her expense.

Of course, with Christine, nothing was safe from being hilariously taken down. Born with a wicked sense of humour, Christine saw fair game in anything and anyone. On the day she turned twenty-one — and I can't remember where we were performing — one of the brass players bought Christine a Playgirl magazine. We had it between us in the pit, and were giggling away, like the teens we practically were, during the longueurs of Die Fledermaus ... It was only the next day when we learned that someone with opera glasses had been outraged in the gallery. I felt utterly embarrassed but Christine just retorted indignantly, 'It was my twenty-first, for God's sake!'

Opera 80 was far from the only place where Christine and I worked together, though I always played second fiddle to 'Wacko Jacko'. For example, we were playing a concert in St Johns Smith Square, where I believe we comprised the second desk, though I can't swear to it. At any rate, Christine, petite and pretty, was wearing a plunging strapless top (and probably Those Trousers) while I — well, I was a size 12 back then — a top with only smallish straps ... At the next rehearsal the orchestra manager told us that there had been complaints at the sheer amount of cellistic flesh on display and would we kindly dress more demurely for the following concert. Christine thought this remark absolutely hilarious but I covered myself to the eyeballs thereafter, terrified that I'd be rubbed out of the chamber orchestra concerned. (Nobody rubbed out Christine: her sound was too luminous for that.)

Which brings me to the sound. Christine played the cello, as we've all endlessly been instructed to, like a great warm tenor unleashing his voice. She also — unsurprisingly, given her character — possessed the capacity to take on musical risks rare then and far rarer today, when perfection is so often prized above daring. When Christine played solo, the ear was captured and cajoled into listening to nothing else. Sister to Garfield Jackson of the Endellion Quartet, she possessed absolute individuality as well as flair.

I also remember, one slick, icy winter week in Doncaster, even the usually ebullient Christine felt very low. She said to me mournfully, 'I can't bear this', and I agreed with her. But — unlike me — Christine always had a plan ... Now the pay structure was very clear back in Opera 80. The employees who made the most were those stagehands who moved the stuff from opera house to opera house, working nights, setting up the productions, organising the lighting. After them came the orchestra, which got the usual Union touring rates: enough to provide us with B&Bs and food, nothing glam. Least well-paid of all were the opera singers — yes, the two sopranos who took turns to sing Fiordiligi, both of them amazing though I regret I can no longer recall their names — made less than Christine and me. Admittedly, they were basically doing it for the reviews, but still, it never seemed fair.

Anyway, Christine's plan was this: we were stuck in Doncaster, the sleet was pelting down and there was no end in sight. Why didn't we spend/waste our entire salaries for about a fortnight in order to take out a four-day membership in the local gym? (Jacuzzi, sauna etc included.) Now I would love to say that I held out loyally in order to assist in paying my husband's and my first mortgage — but there was always something irresistible about Christine. We had a wonderful time in Doncaster, sipping smoothies in the jacuzzis and not earning a single bean for the remaining fortnight ...

We didn't work together so much once I got into stuck into the baroque cello and novel-writing, while Christine's career was far more glorious, playing piano trios with Vovka Ashkenazy, guest-leading the celli in London's top orchestras etc. However, we always stayed in touch, especially during a period when, as she was living nearby, we used to meet for coffee and do the 'toning tables' together, working those abs twice a week ...

Christine — slim, vital, charismatic — was never short of admirers. In fact her love life could have comprised any number of novels while I was the staid, married one — until she moved to Australia. People might wonder what took Christine, supposedly one of the heirs to Du Pré, to the Australian hinterland, but all I know is that, first with the Australian chamber orchestra and later as the 'barefoot cellist' — yet another of her many nicknames! — she had been utterly and blissfully happy. Christine had always used to feel a little stifled in the UK and had never been in the least impressed by either status or money. Of course it was also in Australia where she met David Hudson, which made all the difference.

But it was also in Australia when she also encountered what amounts to the Jackson family curse: a tendency to cerebral aneurysms. Worse still, when it happened, she was deep in the Australian wilderness, far from assistance. As she told me the first time we talked afterwards, total recovery was impossible. Paralysed down one side, she could still teach — and apparently, was inspirational at it — while David was supportive, caring and generous, but that soaring Christine Jackson cello 'sound' was still gone forever ... Despite this, her courage was amazing, and even the last time we spoke she sounded marvellously upbeat.

I don't know what complications of the aneurysm killed her. All I know is that something fiery and fearless, mischievous and funny, loyal and utterly honest has left us, along with that sound.

I also know this: This world's a far colder place without Christine in it.

Copyright © 5 February 2016 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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