International pianist Kathryn Stott returns to her Northern roots for two concerts in modest venues in Yorkshire. Nick Ahad spoke to her.
When she played the White House it was “very official”, but when she played for Prince Charles and Princess Diana, it was a lot more intimate – and Diana requested an encore. It’s a long old way from Nelson, Lancashire, to the White House, but Kathryn Stott, who now lives in Hebden Bridge made the extraordinary journey.
Despite moving these days in rarified circles and touring around the world, Stott retains a real sense of being an ordinary girl to whom extraordinary things have happened – thanks to an extraordinary gift for playing the piano. Underlining the fact that she remains true to her working class roots, is the news that she is playing a gig in March in a venue that, not to be mean, does not quite match some of the arenas in which she has played. On March 25 she will close a concert series she has curated over the winter at Leeds College of Music.
It’s not quite the Hollywood Bowl or the Albert Hall, but to Stott, the Leeds College of Music concert is just as important as any of those higher profile gigs. “It features music from the 1600s right up to the present day and I think it’s a great way to introduce people – and young people in particular – to some wonderful music.”
Next month she will also play at Hebden Bridge Town Hall in the piano festival, which is returning for a second year. In some ways the Leeds College of Music concert is a return to where it all began for Stott, whose career was launched when she played at the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition. “I started when I was five years old. My parents had an upright piano at home and I just started playing and took to it really easily. I seemed to find reading music really quite easy, which is the thing lots of children struggle with when they first start playing,” she says.
When pushed, she does eventually admit: “I suppose I did have a natural talent. I became quite dedicated really quite quickly – I suppose because I picked it up quite fast.”
Her career, even as a child, also progressed with an impressive speed. At one of her first competitions it didn’t take long for the precocious Stott to stand out. “One of the first competitions I did was in Skipton and I loved it because I kept winning these little trophies,” she says. “One of the adjudicators told my parents that she thought I was quite talented and suggested my parents look into sending me to the Yehudi Menuhin School. That was when it became a serious business.”
Serious business indeed. Stott was eight. Suddenly she was thrust into a life at one of the world’s leading music schools and an experience that few of us could imagine.
When she looks back on the fact that she was a child and sent away to live in a school that demanded a serious amount of dedication and standards of excellence, Stott understands now that it was a strange thing to happen.
At the time, it all felt entirely natural. “I didn’t really know what was going on, but I did really like it,” she says. “I find it quite odd that I settled in so quickly. I found it quite comforting that it was in the countryside. When I was older, a teenager, I found it too small and wanted to get out, but I was very happy when I was younger.” Stott’s school timetable was enough to make a grown man cry. From 6am, it was an hour of music dictation, where a teacher would play and the children would transcribe it.
At 7am the children then spent an hour practising yoga (Menuhin was a yoga fanatic).
Only then, at 8am, did the pupils have breakfast. “At 9am half the school would do maths and English and the other half would practice playing. In fact, of all the things about the school, that was the biggest shock. We had to practice for three, four hours a day. I didn’t like doing even ten minutes before I arrived.”
Looking back, while it was clearly anything but an easy ride, Stott also recognises that she received a musical education that was truly exceptional. “I realise that while I was there I was exposed to greatness – and there really were some truly great teachers at the school, introducing you to the work of some of history’s greatest composers.” By the time she was 16, she was at the Royal College of Music in London and a couple of years later it was suggested she have a go at entering the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition.
“I was 19 years old and I somehow found myself in the final. I was terrified,” she says. She came fifth. “It was enough to propel me from nothing to having 90 concerts a year, so my life changed dramatically. I wasn’t ready for it. I was still a student, so after three years I went back to college to finish my course.” The life of a busy musician, says Stott, is in essence lots and lots of travel.
“It’s a tremendous stress, exhausting, but really exciting too.” It also requires a level of dedication not many will ever be able to understand. Stott still practises for five hours every day. “You have to stay in shape – it really is like being an athlete. If I go on holiday and don’t practice for two weeks my hands feel weak, my shoulders hurt, everything hurts,” she says. “I never stop and think ‘oh I’ve done really well’. In music, I am always trying to improve.”
• Leeds College of Music, March 25. Tickets 0113 222 3434, Hebden Bridge Town Hall, April 13. Tickets www.hebdenbridgepianofestival.com