John Wallace was born in Methilhill, Fife, in 1949. His father worked as a joiner in Tullis Russell Paper Mills and played like many of his extended family in the Tullis Russell Mills Band. Soon his father, Kiff, brought home a cornet and from the age of 7 he learnt his music in the informal sector through aural transmission from passionate inspired amateur musicians. He went on to Buckhaven High School where the Principal Music Teacher, Albert Cochrane was superimposing a Performing Arts Factory on a state school in the seminal early sixties. John never looked back from this flying start in Scotland’s superlative formal and informal music education system. At 15, he played the Haydn Trumpet Concerto on a European tour with the National Youth Orchestra of Gt. Britain (there was no National Youth Orchestra of Scotland back then), went on to read music at King’s College, Cambridge, where his Director of Studies was Sir David Willcocks, and then studied composition as a postgraduate at the Royal Academy of Music with Alan Bush and at York University with David Blake.
The trumpet was his second study at the Academy, and he paid for his later studies through playing second trumpet in the Festival Ballet touring orchestra and the Northern Sinfonia in Newcastle. Failing to make ends meet as a composer, he auditioned successfully and joined the self-governing co-operative, the London Symphony Orchestra, whose Principal Conductor at the time was Andre Previn, as a share-holding playing member in 1974. From 1976 to 1995 he was Principal Trumpet of another self-governing orchestra, The Philharmonia, Principal Conductors Riccardo Muti and Lorin Maazel. At the Philharmonia, he became vice-Chairman of the Board. These experiences of successful self-run London Orchestras – self-generating, entrepreneurial, commercially-minded, artistic businesses full of inspired individuals – coloured his whole attitude subsequently to creating a future for cultural enterprise.
He later performed as a soloist, most famously with Kiri Te Kanawa to a live TV audience of 750,000,000 people, at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. Diverse composers including Malcolm Arnold, James Macmillan and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies wrote him concertos. He started his brass interest ensemble with like-minded buccaneering individuals – the Wallace Collection – in 1986, and toured the world – to the USA, Canada, Australia, West and South Africa, Malaysia, Japan, Hong Kong, Argentina, as well as all over Europe. He also made over 30 solo and ensemble CDs with an extended Wallace Collection getting to the top of the Billboard crossover charts in the USA twice.
He returned to Scotland in 2002 coming from the unusual non-academic career view of a self-employed entrepreneur into his first salaried and pensioned job aged 52 to become the first, and still the only, Scot to hold the position of Principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Here he assembled a world-beating team of staff with a huge appetite for risk, blessed with the ability to lead the UK from Scotland. Together they forged a strategy Creating the Future of Performance. This was predicated on a new trans-disciplinary curriculum in which all students take responsibility for forging their own individual career pathways. The main achievements of his period as Principal were winning the equivalent of the 100 Years War to get Drama funded on the same footing as Music (2009); bringing Dance into the portfolio to make the RSAMD the first small specialist conservatoire of all the performing arts in Europe (2009); changing the name to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to reflect this new stature (2011); undertaking a full and comprehensive curriculum reform 2008-14; and extending the Estate both in Renfrew Street (the West Wing) and at Speirs Locks – the Wallace Studios – at a cost of £14.5 million raised mainly through quiet philanthropy at no cost to the public purse.
In the past decade Scotland’s conservatoire has become more relevant to the cultural economy of our small country, initiating new programmes in PG Musical Theatre and UG Digital Film and Television (2004); Classical and Contemporary Text (2006); Modern Ballet, Jazz and UG Musical Theatre, Production and Design (2009). It is a catalytic contributor to Scotland’s thriving performing arts ecology.
John Wallace retired from RCS in September 2014.