The Big Interview: Dame Fanny Waterman

Dame Fanny Waterman and below with Ted Heath
Dame Fanny Waterman and below with Ted Heath
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SHe sets a hand-held timer to 45 minutes. “I have to keep an eye on my meat,” she says. After precisely 44 minutes, before the timer goes off, Dame Fanny Waterman departs from the drawing room of her large north Leeds home to tend to a roast in the oven. “Follow me into the kitchen.”

As the petite figure speedily shuffles from one room to the next, it’s remarkable to think that this lady is 92 years old. And I tell her as much. “I didn’t expect you to be so...” “So frisky?” she says, kindly finishing my sentence.

And after turning the heat down on a sizzling tray of beef we’re off again, this time into the downstairs loo which, given the size of this three-storey, stone retreat in leafy Oakwood, could probably accommodate 20 people.

In a way it does, because the walls are festooned with photos of Dane Fanny with various famous figures, ranging from composer Benjamin Britten to Prince Charles and former prime minister Edward Heath.

“Someone rang me up and asked if I would have Ted,” she says with a wry smile “And I thought they were having a joke! Anyway I met him and he was a very nice man, not a very good piano player though.”

As head of the Leeds International Piano Competition she has essentially met everyone from the Queen down. The toilet seems to host images of B-list meetings, back in the drawing room is where you’ll find the A-list gallery, mostly scattered on two giant Steinways.

The most recent is a snap of Dame Fanny taken a few months ago when Her Majesty brought together all the dames of the British empire for a Jubilee celebration at London’s Royal Academy. And there she is, on the front row, alongside those other national treasures: Judi Dench, Diana Rigg and Shirley Bassey.

Small wonder then that in her home city, where she was born, brought up, and where she raised two sons with husband Dr Geoffrey de Keyser, she is now unofficial aristocracy. Long before the damehood was bestowed on her in 2005, she’d earned her elevated civic status by working tirelessly to set up and maintain what’s now known around the world as ‘The Leeds’. So, it seems fitting that, in person, she’s suitably brisk and appears more than aware of her place in history.

“It used to be Leeds United,” she says discussing the impact of the LIPC “but now it’s our competition which has really put us on the map, because we are the only cultural organisation in Leeds which is truly international.”

It’s been just over half a century since she first came up with the concept then, after roping in the then Countess of Harewood, Marion Thorpe, she and the good doctor established the contest. He was sceptical about such a sophisticated showcase taking off in a city where culture still languished in the shadows of soot-encrusted factories and mills. But she was determined to prove him wrong, and so the first contest took place at the University of Leeds in 1963, with the competition later moving to its current home, Leeds Town Hall.

The 2012 contest is now in full swing and tomorrow Dame Fanny will welcome superstar pianist Lang Lang to the city. Like anyone with a serious appreciation of music, the Chinese prodigy has been a long-time admirer of the contest which is famous for launching the careers of numerous maestros including Romania’s Radu Lupu and America’s Murray Perahia.

In the world of pianists Dame Fanny is a living legend. More than two million people have learned to tinkle the ivories thanks to her landmark Me and My Piano books, and for almost 50 years she’s been admired for her inextricable association with ‘The Leeds’. Hence Lang Lang can’t wait to see her again this weekend – but he’s not the only who one who begs an audience.

“I recently had a phone call from Number 10 Downing Street,” she says. “And they told me that Aung San Suu Kyi wants to meet me because she loves the piano and used to play all the time while she was incarcerated. The Prime Minister’s website said it all: it said it was the greatest honour for the city of Leeds.”

The dame’s grand house, which is both a home and HQ for the competition, is a few miles down the road from North Street, where she spent her formative years as a little girl. Yet it couldn’t be further away. She refers to the city centre home she shared with parents as “a slum” and though her father was a Russian jeweller, times were always tough. After all, she was born just after the First World War and by the time the Second World War began she was still a teenager.

Fortunately her family spotted the musical talent in Fanny which was first nurtured with lessons (which her father scrimped to pay for) and further developed through the experience of playing morning prayers at Chapel Allerton High School.

From there she won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London.

Her parents and her headteacher were the biggest influences on her early life, but the real turning point was meeting Dr Geoffrey de Keyser. He was 17 and she was 21. They married in 1944.

“I do miss him so much,” says Dame Fanny of her husband, who passed away 11 years ago “He was such a huge supporter of the competition, he was always my rock. And I don’t mind admitting that when he died I did consider giving up the competition.

“But actually the hardest thing I find is the pain of receiving all these honours, like being given the Freedom of the City of Leeds, and meeting these dignitaries and famous people. I wish he was here to share it with me, I wish he was here for me to talk to him about it all.

“A few weeks ago I had the honour of having lunch with the Queen in Saltaire, and what hurts is when you open the door and you come home and you haven’t got someone there to discuss what’s just happened with you.”

At such a grand age there is a sense that Dame Fanny is looking back on her life, and on her beloved competition in particular. What will her legacy look like in years to come?

When the final rounds of applause have echoed around Leeds Town Hall, the team have to find the £1m running costs to stage the 2016 contest. It’s not an easy task and there’s an unease and a sense of injustice that, after five decades of work, her legacy may not be secure.

“I don’t think this will be the last competition, but it is a worry, certainly,” she says. “At the moment we’re the number one competition of this kind, but what if we have to lower our standards? What if we slip down to third or fourth? It would be terrible.

“I have thought about it, my legacy, but so far I haven’t seen who can play the part that I’ve played. People jokingly say they wish they could clone me. I have musical evenings here at the house and afterwards people will give £100,000, but that wont pay for everything. The competition cost £12,000 in the beginning, but now it’s a seven-figure sum.

“I’m the only one who’s really raised any money for the competition from the beginning. When I ask my trustees: ‘You’re in business, why don’t you help?’ they all say, ‘But you do it better than us’ and I say, ‘That’s a cop out!’”

But there’s no denying the fact that Dame Fanny is closely intertwined with the competition. It almost creates a double-edged sword: her high profile is a constant positive, but it also suggests the competition will steam along under her influence alone. The truth is, it always needs financial help, and, as classical music audiences grow ever older, the LIPC’s famous bastion won’t always be around to drum up support.

She says: “The city of Leeds has given us so little that if we had to rely on them we’d be bankrupt by now. But ultimately they could be the losers in this.

“Similar competitions are supported like this across Europe. The Chopin in Warsaw receives state support, as does The Tchaikovsky in Moscow, which even saw President Putin attend the finals.”

But Dame Fanny remains resolutely forward-thinking. A grandmother of six, she’s just experienced the joy of becoming a great-grandmother, to baby Learl. Recently she took a group of children under her wing at Wykebeck Primary School, convinced that providing an introduction to music can transform their lives in the same way it transformed hers.

“My parents didn’t know a lot about music but they appreciated it and imbued that in me,” she says. “I’m not old-fashioned but so many youngsters go home and immediately put on the TV or listen to ‘rock ‘n’ roll’. But give them a beautiful Schubert symphony and they will like that just as much.”

And with that you realise that Dame Fanny’s greatest legacy to Leeds isn’t necessarily a highbrow cultural event developed in a grimy post-industrial city, but what the piano competition and her slum-to-stardom ascent represents: the power of eternal optimism.

The Leeds International Piano Competition runs until September 16. For more details visit www.leedspiano.com.