The Classical Station’s interview with Kathryn Stott for My Life in Music
Interview with Kathryn Stott
by Bethany Tillerson (photo credit: Jacqui Ferry)
This month’s guest on My Life in Music is renowned pianist Kathryn Stott. Having collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma for years, Kathryn Stott achieved recognition at the age of 19 after her success at the Leeds International Music Festival. In this interview, she speaks about her career with host Naomi Lambert.
NAOMI: Let’s just start with talking a little bit about you.
STOTT: I’m a pianist first and foremost, but I would say I’m a musician and my great love of music is overriding. So I think being a musician can take on many forms. Practically, I’m a pianist, but I do a lot of creative things around that, including being an artistic director, teaching, working with young people, all kinds of things.
NAOMI : How did you come to play the piano?
STOTT: I had a little upright piano in my family home, and I’ve often wondered what would have happened if that wasn’t there. My mum was a part time piano teacher. She taught on a quite a basic level to small children. I was never forced to take it up, but as a five-year-old, I went to mess around on it but found that I could make some sense of things quite quickly. My mum very sensibly sent me to another teacher, and I learned to read music super quickly. I had one local teacher who loved putting me in for competitions and festivals, so I did a lot of those when I was six-and-a-half or seven. At one of them I won a lot of prizes, and the adjudicator took my mum aside and the next minute I found myself at the Yehudi Menuhin School. That’s a music school in the UK, a boarding school. And in those times it was very small. There were only 35 students from the age of 8 to 17. It was quite intense. I lived there until I was 16, so it was a big change from my hometown, and a very different atmosphere. I didn’t see my family for six weeks at a time. I don’t know if you have these schools in the United States, but boarding schools are quite common in the UK, whether you’re in music or not.
NAOMI: I don’t think there’s the same tradition of music festivals. I remember doing some similar things at a lower level. In terms of music schools, I think the kids are generally a little older. But yes, that must have been quite a shock to the system. Was Yehudi Menuhin involved when you were there?
STOTT: It was 1967 when I went. I remember being taken to his concerts, but like many things, I think the school was set up and then he left it to other people. He would appear maybe once a year. Pianists sadly didn’t have much to do with him. I can’t say I had any direct influence from him. There were certain things that filtered into the school. We all had to take seaweed tablets for breakfast with our breakfast because he believed in that, and a lot of us did yoga very early in the morning. The classes started at 6 a.m. Our day was really packed and full on.
But I met marvelous people. I was very influenced by some French teachers, like Vlado Perlmuter. He was Lithuanian by birth, but he was very much in the French tradition and as a young man, he studied with Ravel. It was great to have some first-hand knowledge from people like that. Nadia Boulanger was another person who would visit. That actually had a very big effect on me.
As musicians, we often spend half of our time just trying to decipher scores. Most of the time it’s in black and white and we have to bring it all to life. And then everybody has their interpretation. We don’t often have the chance to speak to a composer about what exactly they meant, so when Perlmuter was talking about Ravel, he could say exactly what Ravel had said to him.
NAOMI: You came to international prominence because you were so successful at the Leeds International Piano Competition. What did you play?
STOTT: I played lots of things because that competition goes on for about four rounds. In the final, I played Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and I was scared stiff. I was 19 years old, and attended the Royal College of Music in London. The Leeds International Piano Competition required a lot of repertoire, and my list of pieces wasn’t great. We learned very slowly at school, and I found myself in the final, but I hadn’t seriously learned my concerto. I’d learned it, but didn’t actually expect that I would play it. So I can remember the sheer panic the night before when we found out, so I simply didn’t care about winning. I got fifth prize, but I just wanted to survive.
Agents would come to these big competitions and would be watching what was going on and making judgments along the way. I had an agent when it ended and I went from zero concerts a year to ninety professional concerts a year. It was incredibly exciting, of course, because I’d never decided this was what I was going to do, so I found myself in this place, but I wasn’t really equipped for it. I hit the water running and half sinking, trying to keep my head above the water, trying to learn new pieces because I didn’t have amazing guidance at that time. The agent I heard was also incredibly young, and he said to me years later that he didn’t know exactly what he was doing, either. We both laughed about it because we both survived. But it was tough.
We’d get the London Symphony Orchestra calling up and saying “Can you play this Grieg piece?” We’d agree even though I didn’t know the piece. We just said yes to everything. And after about three years, I hung up my hands and said, That’s it, I’m done. I just thought, if this is the kind of life this career is, I don’t want it to be so stressful.
We should have gone more carefully. Go slowly. Build up your repertoire. Have time to study. When I left, I didn’t touch the piano for about four months. Maybe that was a good thing; I needed a break. And then I called my agent up and I said, “I think I’d like to have another go, but let’s go slowly.”
NAOMI: I noticed you have a recent recording with Christian Poltéra, as well as Yo-Yo Ma. Could you talk a bit about that and what it’s like being an accompanist or an equal partner in that sort of dynamic?
STOTT: I grew up with string instruments and I just fell in love with the sound of the cello. I met Yo-Yo Ma in 1978 right before the Leeds competition. He was in London with his wife, Jill. They had just gotten married and, actually, I found them living in my flat and they didn’t know I lived there. My flatmate had sublet without telling anybody. That’s how we became friends; it was really nice because I hadn’t a clue who he was. I’m sure he was already quite well known in the States, but I didn’t know him. I just opened the door and found him there. And the more I think about that story, the more bizarre all that is.
I’ve known Christian for over 20 years and we’ve made a number of recordings together. And the most recent one was a collection of music by Brahms and Schumann. I always like to use the term collaborative pianist or musical partner, because I think there’s been a very big tradition of not acknowledging what pianists do. You’ll sometimes see a recording with only one artist’s name on the front, and no mention that there’s a pianist involved. Concerts are frequently advertised like that. Years ago, there was a huge booklet about our tour and there were pages all about him, and we turned to the back page and there I was. So when we do our concerts, we make a point to always be advertised together.
NAOMI: Could we talk about your repertoire?
STOTT: When I was in school, I had a 1-on-1 lesson with Nadia Boulanger, and she introduced Faure’s music to me and introduced me to the colors and the harmonies, and I got addicted to this harmonic language, which is quite different. If you listen to Faure and then you listen to Ravel, they’re very different. They’re not just French, you know, and it doesn’t all just sit in the same pot. And it just always stayed with me and in my early twenties I was asked to make my first solo recording, and I wanted to do something that I totally love. And I thought, yes, I know exactly what it is. It’s the music of Faure. I’ve since recorded the music many, many times. But also I created a festival to sort of celebrate him and composers around him. And it’s just been a lifelong love affair, because whenever I pull out a piece of his music and I sit down, I play it again and I just love it. I have a very broad taste in music, but if I just had to name one person that has touched my heart, it was him.
I think it’s just a musical language that I feel very close to. So even as I explored a lot of his music, I actually recorded all of the solo music, which was quite an undertaking. Because some of his music speaks to you very easily, and some of the later music is quite complex. I think also his music is something if you sit down and try to read it, you can’t always read it very easily. So it’s something to just sort of learn to live with, give it a few chances, maybe.
NAOMI: You perform a lot, you record a lot, and you also have this artistic director hat which you’ve used in the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. You’re also involved with the Sheffield Chamber Music Festival. So what will you be doing there?
STOTT: Well, actually, the festival has been going for many years. It used to be run by the Lindsay Quartet. And what they’ve decided to do now, rather than put together the festival themselves, is invite somebody to be a curator. Last year they had a composer and this year it’s me. On average, there’s two concerts a day. I’ve invited some special guests, like Tine Thing Helseth, the Norwegian trumpet player, and the bandoneon player, JP Joffre, who I think is the next generation Piazzolla. I’m introducing some music that people aren’t so familiar with and creating concerts that I hope people will enjoy.
In Australia it was very different. I did that festival for about two or three years on a very large scale with about 40 musicians involved, two-thirds of them Australian. So I suddenly had to learn who was who in Australia: who were the leading quartets, who were the leading pianists. I had to bring people together, create programs without really knowing who they were, and see if they all got along. It’s incredibly rewarding when it works. I just got away from the idea of one concert being just one type of music and just mixed it all up. I’ve been doing that since 1995. I absolutely love it.
It means I keep my interest in a huge amount of music, some of which I don’t play at all. I’m always listening to things and I’ll make a mental note of it if I think we could feature it in a festival. The joy of festivals is bringing people together. Sometimes you find people who click as musicians and they work together for the next four or five years.
Join us for our full interview with Kathryn Stott at 7 PM on Monday, May 1st. Download our app, stream online on TheClassicalStation.org, or turn your radio to 89.7 FM.