My Gentle Journey
In 2012, I would walk into a Piano shop in London’s infamous Camden Market, that would change my life forever.
I was scouting for a piano for a friend and was pointed in this direction. There were pianos like coffins almost piled one on top of the other in a dusty, cramped, eccentric, bohemian setting. As I pushed the door a crude bell signaled my entry to this overcrowded “parlour”! There was no one to be seen. Soon a loud rude voice aggressively shouted, “we’re closed!” Almost with a startle and a sudden jolt, I fell back into a sitting position on to a piano stool. I instinctively began to play “Musetta’s Waltz Song” quite appropriately from the Opera, “La Boheme” on the dusty instrument in front of me. Almost from nowhere, the voice belonging to the, eventually as I would describe him, Fagin-like character emerged. I stopped abruptly and he beckoned me, “continue... continue” with a broad wide smile out of a face that told its own tale. I soon retorted, “are you the Undertaker?”. He was Desmond O’Keefe Gentle!
This was the beginning of a long, wonderful, respectful and honest friendship that lasted between two friends for 7 memorable years. We were the 2 most unlikely men you’d ever think of as striking up a friendship, yet it worked so well.
In 2014, after one of my performances with my accompanist, Australian Pianist, Coady Green, Desmond told me of his collaboration with filmmakers to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Russian composer, Anton Scriabin, at the Thikse Monastery in the Himalayas. By this time I grew to realise that Desmond was far more than the governor of Camden Piano Rescue. He was an extraordinary man with an extraordinary vision for life. His approach was simple, “we could never come close to your full fee, but hope that the challenge and the vision I have, would excite you enough to do it.” It would be my first trip to India, let alone the infamous Himalayas singing at an extraordinary altitude of 3,600 metres. The latter was mine and my wife’s primary concern.
Scriabin only composed 1 song, but, through the clever re-scoring of some of the Etudes by Christopher Wayne Smith, I would sing in the most idyllic setting with the Monks of the Monastery adding a distinctive touch. The months leading up to this challenge were a physical and mental feat. Breathing at this altitude as a classical singer without the aid of microphones etc is deeply challenging. So much so, that a few years later when Desmond came up with the idea of doing, “The Deepest Concert” in a salt mine in Romania and “The Highest Concert” in Ladakh In the Himalayas I had reservations about the latter. In early 2018 when he again approached me about it, I said it was impossible for my schedule. His retort was, “I won’t do it without you.” I was in Trinidad and Tobago in August 2018, returning to London on the morning of the 2nd September 2018 and had a window of a few days off in London before I had to sing again. All of this I explained to Desmond. He immediately said, I could book you on a flight to Delhi on the 2nd in the evening. My experience knowing Desmond over the years was that he wasn’t going to take ”no” for an answer. Further, I saw how much this meant to him. I had never seen him so earnest and insistent. He desperately wanted to raise awareness of Cystic Fibrosis, the importance of recycling to preserve the environment and deliver pianos to areas of the world which would never have dreamt it possible. Desmond saw Music and performance as the universal language to draw people in to listen to his concerns for the world and its people. This is where my involvement was essential.
I arrived in Delhi on the 3rd September was met by my driver Raj, who was also my driver in 2015 and whom I requested. By the 4th September, I was already in Leh, preparing to make my ascent to Ladakh. On the 5th September my concert took place on the open air terrace of Hotel Glacier View at an altitude of 3,420 metres. I was accompanied on Harp by Siobhan Brady. My application for the Highest Operatic Harp Concert is pending approval. The following day, 6th September, I was due to ascend even further to sing at an altitude of over 5,000 metres. Desmond in front of members of the crew pointedly asked me not to make that ascent as he felt it would be injurious to my health and my voice. He knew how challenging it already was to sing at the altitude I had just achieved and didn’t feel I should “risk a further increase in altitude”. I knew he wouldn’t have advised this lightly. The rest of the crew including Harpist, Siobhan Brady, did the further ascent on the 6th September. The following day, the 7th September, Desmond confessed he was not feeling very well and said he was so glad that I didn’t go further. He was a man who truly cared and this I appreciated in him on many occasions.
On returning to London mid-September, Desmond still kept saying he felt unwell. On the 4th October 2018, my dear friend, Anna, who was also on the India trip, informed me that Desmond Gentle died on Tuesday 2nd October after collapsing near his shop on Camden High Street. Hence the reason this principled man did not return my call left that very day. The cause of death likely to be thrombosis from extreme altitudes.
Through this wonderful man, I experienced a country and a people I greatly appreciate. He also bonded me with friends such as, Anna Dawn Ray, Jan-Bas van Riel, Chip Phillips, Alex Stobbs, Sean and Siobhan Brady, Laura Nolan, Ali and Tibby.
Thank you Desmond for sharing your dreams with us and heightening our awareness of the fragility of our environment. May we have the vision to continue your legacy as you weave your tales in the Highest Heavens.