Kathryn Stott in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The thirteenth interview in my Classical Conversations Series features British pianist, Kathryn Stott. It was filmed last week at the Wigmore Hall in London.

Kathryn is recognised internationally as one of Britain’s most versatile and imaginative musicians and among today’s most engaging pianists. She is in demand for a wide variety of chamber music alliances, playing with some of the world’s leading instrumentalists, as well as appearing on major international concert platforms in recitals and concerto performances. She has also directed several distinctive concert series and festivals and has developed an extensive and exceptionally varied catalogue of recordings.

Born in Lancashire, she studied at the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Royal College of Music and was a prize-winner at the Leeds International Piano Competition 1978. In addition to her busy career as a performer worldwide, she is a visiting professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

She enjoys associations with many orchestras and is a favoured partner of many distinguished chamber musicians. Kathryn has been performing and recording with Yo-Yo Ma for nearly 30 years and future tours include visits to Europe, South America, the Far East and the USA. She has developed shared musical interests with an eclectic group of performers and has a close involvement with many leading string quartets. A particular interest in contemporary music has led to several world premieres. She is a remarkable exponent of tango and other Latin dance music, reflected in her collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma and leading South American musicians on the Grammy Award-winning Sony CD ‘Soul of the Tango’ and its successor ‘Obrigado Brazil’. In the recording studio she has created a large and eclectic body of work including concertos and solo repertoire; of particular note is her recording for Hyperion of the complete solo works by Faure. Apart from her CDs with Yo-Yo Ma, she has also recorded with Truls Mørk, Christian Poltéra, the Hermitage Piano Trio, Guy Johnston and the Doric string quartet.

Kathryn has been the artistic vision behind several major festivals and concert series. ‘Piano 2000’ and ‘Piano 2003’ ( Bridgewater Hall, Manchester) established her reputation as an astute programmer; and following the earlier ‘Fauré and the French Connection’ she was appointed Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French Government. In 2008 she was appointed Artistic Director of the Manchester Chamber Concerts Society and was Guest Artistic Director, 2010 and 2011, of the chamber festival, Incontri in Terra di Siena.

A regular visitor to international festivals both as soloist and chamber musician, Kathryn has recently performed in Australia, Switzerland, Italy, Norway, Holland and Austria. She also enjoys teaming up with trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth for concerts and recordings and they will be touring the UK and Norway in 2013 to coincide with the release of their CD for EMI.

Kathryn (Kathy) has a daughter, Lucy, and lives in Hebden Bridge. In 2008 she celebrated her 50th birthday with 25 musician friends raising £30k for HIV research and Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy of whose fundraising committee she is a member. She also is on the Board of the Hallé Concerts Society. As her range of engagements and activities illustrates, Kathryn Stott’s diverse career remains truly international as she continues to captivate audiences worldwide with her eloquent musicianship and outgoing personality.

For those who would rather read the interview, here’s the transcript:

M: British concert pianist Kathryn Stott enjoys a very busy career playing solo concerts and chamber concerts all around the world. She was a prize winner at the International Leeds Piano Competition and she is artistic director of many different music festivals and concert series. I’m so pleased she is joining me today for one of my classical conversations here in the Gerald Moore room at the Wigmore Hall in London. Welcome.

 K:  Thanks very much Melanie. Nice to meet you finally.

 M:  Great talking to you. I’m really excited about it. I’m going to start by asking you all about your musical education. How you started? What age were you? Whether you come from a musical family? What was the catalyst?

 K: I think I started playing the piano around the age of five. My mother was a sort of part-time piano teacher so we had a little upright piano in the house. I don’t remember that she tried to force me to learn but I think I was just very inquisitive, very nosey, and naturally just wanted to have a go at the piano.

 I think like a lot of kids I struggled when she then did try and give me a few lessons. I remember it wasn’t pleasant. I think it was horrible for her. I didn’t want to be told anything. I could sight read very quickly. I think for somebody like me that had very low patience thresholds… I can remember kind of whipping through pieces and thinking: “I’ve done that. That’s it. I’m on to the next.”

I think, to mum’s credit, she sort of new that I should have lessons with somebody so she sent me to a local teacher in the town where I grew up which is Nelson in Lancashire. From then I progressed to another local teacher who was an absolute fanatic of little local piano competitions and festivals. I think they still exist. I don’t know if they exist in quite such abundance as they used to. Every town kind of had its own music festival.

 I can remember bumping into Stephen Hough at one of these things. We were all on this little diddy circuit. So it’s about the age of six I left it because I was always off school. I really didn’t care. I didn’t feel nervous about it unlike my brother who was very traumatized by having to do these things. I just used to get up there in my party frock and go and play and I thought it was fun.

I guess I’d be seven by this point, and one particular competition, the adjudicator took my mum aside and said: “You need to do something with this girl.” I’d won like seven trophies or something. Very obnoxious. This lady suggested the MenuhinSchool. If she suggested something else maybe I would’ve ended up there, but that is where I went. I don’t think my parents knew. They weren’t a particularly overly musical family. It was there a little bit. My dad was really keen on Italian opera. That’s what I grew up listening to, it wasn’t listening to the piano except for my mum teaching these wee ones.

I must have auditioned, I don’t remember much about it, but at the age of eight I went off to MenuhinSchool, and came out at 16 (laughing). It was a long time, and it was a big change.

 M:   Which teacher do you think was the most crucial in your development as a pianist?

 K:  That’s actually very difficult to answer because at Menuhin School I had a real cross-section of teachers. Some who profoundly influenced me in very subtle ways. For instance, Vlado Perlemuter used to come and visit the school. This kind of first-hand knowledge of him studying with Ravel and the sounds that he used to make, and we’d used to go and hear him play in London and everything; I’ve never forgotten that because his sound was something else.

            Nadia Boulanger, she did terrorize us at the same time. (I: Yes, I’ve heard about it.) She was absolutely frightening woman, but the standards that somehow she expected us to be able to achieve I think later influenced me somehow. I wish I hadn’t found her so scary. I did play Fauré’s fourth Barcarolle to her in the kind of lesson, just the two of us, and that was wonderful, and then she was very kind and gentle, and wasn’t this kind of ‘audience to pick on’ which she seem to get a little bit more excited over. It was again this kind of direct link to the composer.

            Those things influenced me a lot. My regular teacher at the MenuhinSchool was a total nightmare so I had very mixed messages for seven or eight years and I emerged from there very confused to say the least. So I think I had learned a lot and I didn’t know what to do with any of it. I had no confidence. When I left I wasn’t made to feel that I could go on and do anything. It was a strange feeling. I had to fight that for quite a long time.

            The person that kind of saved my life, my musical life, was Kendall Taylor, who was a lovely man. I studied with him at the Royal College of Music in London for four years, and he just put me back together again somehow.

            I don’t think I went in that kind of ‘broken’ but I was totally dysfunctional. Even playing a piece through I was traumatized. We were encouraged to spend two years on one piece, one piece being Chopin ballade or something, so I couldn’t play in the end. It was all far too slow.

            I remember my first lesson with Kendall. He said: “So what’s your repertoire? Tell me a bit about it.” I said: “I got five pieces”, and he looked at me like: “Oh my God, What do we do with this?” I had also done lots and lots of chamber music and he almost forbid it for a little while. He said: “I just want you to concentrate on yourself.” It seems a bit strange but I think I just have to start to believe that I could do something. He had tremendous faith in me. It is interesting while I think about it because I chose him as teacher just on some sort of vibe about him. I didn’t know anything about him. When I think of some decisions I’ve made in my life…

We were encouraged to do the diploma before we actually got there. I went to do the ARCM as a student of Menuhin School and he was the sort of head of the panel and I thought: “He is so nice, this man. He is so sweet. I want to study with him.”, and that was it. (M: Intuition) For a lot of other people he was almost too gentle, too soft, didn’t push them. For me that was kind of what I needed. He knew how to bring out the best of me in a different way so that was rather nice.

 M:  How did you develop your technique over the years?

 K: Well, another aspect of studying at the Menuhin School was that we had a number of French teachers that used to come and visit. This is what caused all eruptions with my regular teacher who couldn’t cope with all this different influences and different methods coming in, which is fair enough. It was very confusing and difficult for her.

            One teacher that used to come quite regularly was Marcel Ciampi. So he is a kind of Cortot descendant. Ciampi had made up a whole way of studying technique. He had his exercises for everything, from leaping (describes with a gesture and tune), to a sort of wrist staccato, but everything was very finger oriented, there was no weight there. So, Barbara Kerslake, who was the lady I had lessons with twice a week, always used to make this play at the beginning of the Tchaikovsky to get weight, it’s ten year olds sort of a (describes a sound), and then there was him (Ciampi) with this sort of a multi colored felt pens telling us how to work on our techniques. I think that was the confusion, because his was very much one way, hers was very much another, and they have both fantastic things and nobody thought: “You might need a little bit of both at the same time. It might be useful.”

            I think my fingers were highly trained early. I don’t remember doing many scales but I remember doing quite a lot of études, and then later finding technical things in the piece to practice rather than just doing an étude for the sake of it.

 M: When you were a prize winner in the Leeds, how did this shape and change your career, because it was a huge competition to win a prize in? It must have really developed your career in a way or helped you this way?

 K: I had no career until then. I mean basically it was an overnight. I was still a student. I was 19 and Kendall Taylor said: “Look, I want you to have a go at this.” It was absolutely his idea. I don’t think I had any aspirations about things like that. I don’t think I was very competitive by nature either. I still don’t like it. But he thought it would be good for me to aim for something and so we went into it. I say ‘we’ because it was a kind of joint effort, just as something to strive for and he said, you know, with a view to maybe doing it again later.  I think I excelled in the semi-final round which in those days used to have chamber music as a part of it. You have 45 minutes doing solo recital and then you have to prepare a piano quintet. You’re introduced to a quartet a couple of hours earlier or the night before, and you have a very quick rehearsal and you chose two movements and you prepared it like that. That didn’t bother me because I’d been brought up with all those string kids. I think for a lot of people that was a ‘make or break’ moment. I kind of sailed through that and then: “Oh my God!” I found myself in the final having not really completed my learning of the Emperor concerto. Because, you know, when I was sat home I thought: “I really won’t be doing this.” I genuinely just didn’t expect to be in the final. Sometimes people say that, and it sounds a bit cliché, but I really just in my heart didn’t think I might get that far.

I was absolutely terrified. Really terrified. I don’t think I’d ever played it through. It wasn’t really committed to memory and that’s never been my favorite thing either. So I remember just thinking: “Oh my God, I just got to survive. It is live on TV in those days.”

It went OK and I really didn’t care. I wasn’t after that first prize, I just didn’t want to make a complete idiot of myself. So I don’t remember one note, didn’t remember one note of how it went. I probably just went into this kind of ‘automatic’. I was very, very nervous. I had played with orchestra, but only once or twice with a few amateur orchestras. I was so inexperienced.

I got fifth prize which was great and I was very happy with that. The next day I had an agent. I went from no concerts to 90 concerts a year and I think I’d given one recital before so this was a learning curve of the most massive degree. I’m still nervous for people in competitions because of my own experience.

For three years I managed it because my repertoire was so limited (remember going back to Menuhin school) I was still catching up. One advice I didn’t get from anybody was “Don’t say yes to everything” and “Don’t play any piece that anybody had asked you” So suddenly it was, you know, LSO might ask for the new piece. “Yes, fine, new piece. No problem” Lots of Emperor Concertos of course because that was my kind of party piece. Everything was new, Tchaikovsky, Liszt. Not just one of them but two, all within months. I used to offer people three recital programmes, and they could all come up in a week. How bonkers is that? Not one piece repeated. You know, just nuts, I don’t know what I was thinking of. Although I heard amazing advice on a number of occasions from this particular agent, at that point they didn’t tell me quite what to do. I thought this is what we are supposed to be working for and I have to get it.

I had a kind of meltdown three years later (M: I can understand) and I picked up the phone to this chap and I said: “That’s it. Cancel everything. I don’t want to play anymore. I’m playing really badly and I don’t enjoy it” I was a bag of nerves because I was just so scared everything was new. I just thought: “I actually don’t enjoy it. It’s not what I thought it was going to be.”  He was very good with me. At that moment in particular he just said: “Don’t worry. You’re not the first person this has happened to. You’ll be OK. Just pick up the phone when you want to start again. I’ll deal with everything. Forget about it.” and I just said: “I won’t be picking up the phone, but anyway, thank you very much”, I absolutely adamant I could remember it.

I just messed around for three or four months. I don’t know what I did. People often say to me: “Well what did you do.” and I say “I don’t know.” I probably had to rest. I did nothing. Which if you think about it, I’ve been playing since I was five. We worked very hard at school and had very long days. Yeah, it was just non stop, I think I just needed a break.

 M: People don’t realize how difficult it is to be a concert pianist. And sometimes you just need to switch off I think.

K: And you also need to think about what it is you want to do. It takes a moment like that. It’s not an unusual thing. It happens to a lot of people. But it’s traumatic at the time and I just sort of thought: “I will never feel like that again. I will make sure I don’t feel like that again.

 M: You coach a lot of young pianists. Do you advise them to do competitions or do you think there are better ways for establishing a career now?

 K:  I think it is really difficult. I’m not sure that competitions are the answer anymore. I think times have changed. Since I was in Leeds my life changed which is the one thing everybody wants. Wanting to go from nothing to having a career. And here I am 30 years later and it’s very hard to say I don’t 100 percent believe in them. I’m not sure they have the impact that they used to do. I think there were so many competitions and so many pianists that everything is kind of slightly diluted. And the marketplace is different. So I don’t know, I’m not sure that every body remembers who these great prize winners are anymore. Of course there are exceptions but I don’t think you can have sixth prize winners, let’s say at Leeds for example, and all of them would be doing very well. It is not a guarantee of something that’s sustainable anymore. I think that before there was a bit more of a guarantee and that it was up to you, at least to get started. Now some people don’t even get really started from it.

            I don’t advise people to go in for competitions. If they want to, I support them. And I try and give them help about what it might be like and how to prepare the best that you can and not to make the mistakes that I did and be unprepared for what might happen because you never know. They are very unpredictable things.

 M: I want to ask you about your interest in tango, in latin dance music because that’s not that main stream for a classical pianist. How did that come about?

K: That came about through my great friend Yo-Yo Ma. I think he made, maybe his first trip to South America. We’ve been friends for a very long time, and already been working together for years, and years, years.

He rang me up one day, and even now he doesn’t do that often, and he said: “I’ve got to tell you about this music that I’ve heard in Buenos Aires” and I thought: “What is he on about now?” and he said: “I’ve heard the music of Piazzolla. It’s just the most amazing thing.” At that time it was only just taking off and I didn’t really know who he was. I didn’t know anything about that whole culture. He said: “I think we got to play something.”

I got the music of the Grand Tango for cello and piano. It was such a foreign language. First of all it’s quite a strange piece to get your head around. It was such a foreign language not having heard anything before. I just didn’t get it. I remember reading it through to myself. I’m sure there’s something he knows about it that I don’t get right now.

The next time we met we played it together and he told me a little bit more about it. And then, as it happened, he made a CD of Piazzolla’s music with various tango musicians, and he and I recorded that particular piece.

A range of other pieces were there at the sessions and the producer said: “You know how to play this. You’re good at this tango stuff. You know how to do it.” So I was a kind of a bit encouraged and they said: “We think you ought to play on a couple of more tracks with members of Piazzolla’s quintet. I thought: “Wow, this sounds exciting. I better do some research quick.” and then I really got into it. I really new then that we’re not necessarily talking about cello and piano, we are talking about bandonéon and that whole life of the caffès, and then the old tango music, the songs and the dance music and all that.

I got absolutely hooked on it. And then from there it went to Brazillian music. But I think the thing really is, if possible, is to learn from the ones that really know because they will give you so much knowledge. Both Yo-Yo and myself spent hours with these people just letting them tell us what it’s all about, and the rhythms, and all the different kinds of music you find in South America.

 It just opened up a whole new world and then I discovered lots of other composers, quite a number of them that had also been to study with Nadia Boulanger. Piazzolla is one example. He wanted to escape his tango roots a little bit. He didn’t make brilliant progress with her and at some point I think she was a bit frustrated and sort of said: “Look, what else do you do?” and he rattled down one of his tangos and she said: “That’s what you should be doing.”

There were a couple of other composers. I remember, as a child, going to hear Rubinstein play and it was quite common for him to play South American music. Even if we’re not talking about the Tango but Ginastera, Villa-Lobos and all this composers that kind of went out of fashion for a little bit. It’s nice. I like being interested in lots of different things.

 M: You have recorded all of Gabriel Fauré solo kind of music and a lot of French music. What attracts you to that sound?

 K: I think it does go back to my school days. There’s something that’s just absolutely sort of imprinted in me about. I think with Fauré it’s very much about the harmony. I don’t think of him in this kind of impressionistic way that I might approach Ravel or Debussy or something like that. I just don’t think he is connected to that. I find his harmonic language absolutely fascinating and I’m never bored by it. He does this kind of ‘twisting things’ as if this is some sort of long piece of chewing gum or elastic or something that’s just never ending. It’s quite hard to get your head around some of it. Some of the later music is really not immediate but I used to wonder why a lot of people didn’t play his music. I think now it has changed a lot. But I think some of it is not very easy to sight-read. And so you read it through, and it’s often six sharps or six flats, lots of double sharps and things in the middle of anything. Where is this going? What is this? I think it’s problematic in that sense. It needs an investment of time. The early pieces are much more immediate but I found when I first started playing Fauré’s music everybody used to say: “Ah, Fauré yes. The requiem.” and that was it. They stopped there. I think he will always be my sort of subject that I always come back to. I can’t not play it for very long.

 M: You played a huge amount of chamber music with fantastic players, you mentioned Yo-Yo Ma. Do you prefer that to solo performing or would you prefer chamber music? How is your time split?

 K:  (laughing) Depends on what year you ask me. I think all through my career I sort of changed my mind about what I want to do and I have had certain periods of time when I think: “I don’t want to do any more solo stuff” because I actually like sharing my life with somebody. I think that a life of a solo concert pianist can be incredibly lonely. So it is the playing thing, you know, and then we’re here at the Wigmore Hall, and there are moments of waiting back stage on your own. It’s not the easiest to be able to lift yourself up, and carry everything, and then just be traveling.

And then also with the concertos I was often very frustrated that it wasn’t really how I wanted it to be. I think I found it difficult to march in to an orchestra of 80 or 90 people, I had no idea who they are, strangers, and make something happen in a very short space of time, win them over personally and musically. A conductor might have his very strong opinions. Often, I just came away thinking: “Oh God (sighs).” I didn’t feel good. I couldn’t somehow boss the situation in the way that it would go the way I wanted it to or we would make the music together.

 M:  You should get a very short rehearsal time, don’t you?

 K: Very short. Sometimes it was hideously short, sort of 30 minutes on the day of the concert. It’s just nuts. So there have been times when I’ve really gone away from that and I just thought: “I just want to do chamber music” I sort of did that kind of thing for a couple of years. And then after I thought: “It’s kind of nice to play just that” And then sometimes it’s “Let’s not have anybody around”. (I: Yes, when you’ve been playing a lot with others.) Yes! Then just do your own thing actually and not “Take care of somebody else.” or “Consider somebody else.” or have the kind of musical dialogue with somebody. You just do your own thing.

Chamber music will always be a massive love of mine. I’ll never escape that. So it’s probably bit more the bias on that. And then now, I don’t play solo things unless I’m interested. That sounds awful. (M: No, I can totally get that.) If it’s somebody I want to work with, say a conductor or an orchestra, or it’s a piece. I sometimes just think: “I’d love to play that again” or ‘I’ve never played it’ and it came up last year. I’ve always wanted to play that, I’ve always wanted to play Rach 4 (Rachmaninov’s Fourth Piano Concerto), it’s maybe one of my regrets that I never did it, and that’s talking as if it’s all over isn’t it. But you sort of think that your opportunities might get a little bit less to pick and choose what you might want to do.

I happened to mention it to an orchestra, just kind of in passing, and the next minute a date came up and I was like: “Oh my God. Now I have to learn it. I’ve only played the first chords and that was it.” But that was thrilling. It was just amazing. It took over my life for so many months and it was fantastic. It was like a new challenge. I never thought that that would come up. So I’ve learned to not say never, perhaps that’s what I used to do a little bit more.

 M: How did the role of artistic director came up. You’ve been artistic director for quite a few different festivals. Is that always something you wanted to do?

 K: Yeah, I think so. I think I actually started with Fauré in 1995, and it was an anniversary year and I thought: “Nobody is doing anything. I’ll have to do it then.” I have been like that, on and off, in my time, it’s like well, if nobody else is doing it, I’ll get on with it. So I organized the whole festival, I don’t know what I was thinking of. Finding the money for that was… (M: and time to organize it all) There were 12 concerts. Four with the BBC Phil. and eight chamber concerts with amazing people. I can remember Jean-Yves Thibaudet coming to play and Raphael Oleg was there, and Sarah Walker came and sang songs. It was great. It was brilliant. Yo-Yo came and played. It was massive. We’re talking about massive forces here so I had to find the money. That nearly killed me. And you know, you don’t make money out of things like that. It was a lesson in what it took actually to promote something. And I sometimes think people could do with knowing a little bit more about that. I did everything from grass roots level right up. So it was a massive project and I think I probably vowed I’d never do another one. I never did another one on that basis. I just thought: “I’m happy to think of things but it will be for other people” Because that ended up being at personal cost and that’s never good news.

            I think as a result of that The Bridgewater Hall asked me to think up something for the millennium and then I came up with an idea of the Planet Festival. We did that in 2000 and 2003 and had about fifty events. So I have not always done small things (laughing). It is a lot but we thought it was great because we had piano and all its genres, and jazz, and we had tango musicians come over from Argentina, and the things for children, and some new artists came and played and then very established people. It was a total mixture but it was really good. It really took over the building and that was great.

 M:  So what exciting plans have you got coming up next year or so?

 K: What’s happening? I have a job to think what I am doing tomorrow, let alone next year. Well, in the immediate future I’m off to South America. I’m really excited to go to Chile for the first time because I’m a real travel kind of freak (M: You’ve got to be, haven’t you?)  Well, you do, yes. So on the one hand you kind of moan about it, you know, troubles and it’s kind of exhausting but I do get very excited about going somewhere brand new. I shall be coming to the Wigmore Hall here with Yo-Yo. So things that are kind of slightly out of… We got so used to now playing in sort of whopping, giant almost places. Something that’s just unusual gets me excited. I don’t know. It’s just the kind of constant (shuffles her hands) –keep going. But I’ll only do that if I’m interested in what I’m playing and the music, otherwise it’s one big treadmill.

 M:  So what does playing a piano mean to you?

 K:  You know what, I think the piano is actually my constant companion in life and the most stable thing throughout everything. This sounds weird but I can’t imagine life without it. It’s a way of expressing myself, I almost have a kind of physical need to play it. I don’t think I have a need to perform, which is an interesting thing. I don’t see myself being wheeled out here when I’m 100, if I live that long. I do imagine there’s a time I don’t feel if I’m not in shape that I have to go and perform for public. It just happens that that’s what I do and I have to do it in order to survive in a way. I can’t just sit in a room at home and play. I’d like to practice more. I do practice quite a lot but I’d like to learn lots of things, not necessarily for the performance, just to learn them. Yeah.

 M:  Thank you so much for joining me today

 K:  Oh, it’s been a pleasure, I enjoyed it.

 M: It’s been lovely. Thank you.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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