Monday, 9 April 2018

LUNCH WITH DAME FANNY WATERMAN, Founder of the Leeds International Piano Competition


This Sunday (8 April 2018), the Leeds International Piano Competition comes to Singapore! More specifically, part of the First Round of one of the world's most prestigious piano musicians is being held right at our doorstep in the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. 

For the first time in its 55-year history, the competition has decentralised its opening round, with 68 young pianists performing a 25 to 30-minute programme in three cities, Berlin Singapore and New York City. 24 of them will be selected by a travelling jury to compete in the Second Round in September, in Leeds itself.

With this in mind, I fondly recollect a very pleasant lunch and afternoon spent in the presence of the founder of “The Leeds”, DAME FANNY WATERMAN, at her home in August 2015. The last competition (won by Anna Tsybuleva) had completed its First Round, and on its rest day, members of the jury and assorted foreign visitors to “The Leeds” were invited to Chez Fanny's for lunch. Forgoing original plans to visit Harewood House, this was an invitation too hard to resist. Together with Helen Lee, the pianist wife of jury member Tong Il Han, we made it by taxi to Dame Fanny Waterman's house in a posh district in north Leeds.  

Much like the way the competition is run, Dame Fanny was a host unlike any other. We were met at the door by a butler, and ushered into the presence of the Dame herself. She gave a warm welcome and had us put our bric-a-brac (mostly umbrellas, as it had been raining) in the smallest room on the ground floor. 

That must have been the most interesting washroom I had ever stepped into, with framed historic photographs, personal effects and newspaper articles lining the walls, a veritable history of Dame Fanny's illustrious musical career and the competition itself. Directly above the WC was an article entitled “Lifting the lid on the Leeds”. One wondered if that wry bit of humour was intentional. Before long, we had to leave as French pianist and jury member Anne Queffélec discreetly requested the use of the facility.

Next, the room everybody remembers is the spacious and comfortable living room with the two grand pianos, and enough furniture to house a party. There are more framed photographs of family, friends and pianists including Radu Lupu (winner of The Leeds in 1969) and Lang Lang (Ambassador of the competition). Placed strategically on a small coffee table was Dame Fanny's recently published autobiography “My Life In Music”(published by Faber Music) which was having its official launch in a few days' time. By now a small crowd had gathered. There were introductions aplenty and much small talk before lunch was announced.

Anne Queffélec with Eleanor Wong,
and a visitor from Los Angeles in between.

All then adjourned to the dining room where a small but sumptuous spread awaited. Dame Fanny made sure everybody had their share before helping herself. Butlers were on hand to serve the spirits, mineral water and of course that most British of institutions, tea. 

Tête a tête between
Anne Queffélec and Robert McDonald.

Lunch was consumed informally back in the living room where the 95-year-old but sprightly Dame became the centre of attention. She brought out her book, from which excerpts and anecdotes were read. American pianist and jury member Robert McDonald, he of Juilliard and with a most distinguished baritone voice, volunteered to read from the chapter of the Dame's collected jokes.

Robert McDonald aloud reads a sample of
Dame Fanny's collected anecdotes.

The biography is a surprisingly thin volume despite Dame Fanny's many, many years of experience of teaching, judging and organising competitions since 1963, the first edition of The Leeds. If brevity and being succinct were virtues, she would be guilty of these, by far better than tomes that ramble on and on (the late Earl Wild comes to mind). Nonetheless, it made one want to rush out and buy a copy.

Visitors then took their turns to pay tribute, starting with Korean pianist and juror Tong Il Han who thanked her for giving the world “The Leeds” and for making it a great institution. Russian pianist and juror Nikolai Demidenko spoke about musical personalities in his lifetime, and described Maria Yudina as having a “personality the size of a planet”. Needless to say, Dame Fanny was in similarly exalted company. 

Both of them also took turns to play on her Steinway grand. Han tinkled on variations on Happy Birthday while Helen turned the pages. Demidenko gave a mini-recital with a selection of Chopin Mazurkas, Schubert and a most intriguing cadenza for the 1st movement of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. “Do you know it?”, he asked before replying, “Its by Medtner, and you can find it in the Petrucci online score library!?

I had my turn to sit with the Dame, and asked what her plans were after stepping down from the helm of the competition. This was to be her last competition, and Paul Lewis and Adam Gatehouse had been named as her successors as Chairpersons for the 2018 competition. I had asked her a similar question in 2006 (when I was last in Leeds), and her blunt reply then was, “I have plans, but I'm not telling you!” 

This time, she revealed that her long-term mission was to bring more young people to attend concerts. “We are fighting a battle for the future of classical music,” she said with a missionary zeal, hinting that was to become more of a religious crusade. Noting the number of silver-haired people attending the competition (I was among the youngest), I could not help but agree.

At the announcement of the First Round result the day before, she had profusely thanked the participating pianists for “choosing to come to The Leeds”. Many years ago, it would have been a dream and privilege of all pianists to be chosen by the Leeds to perform. The statement alone suggested a perceived decline in stature of the competition, and that was borne out by the fact that only 59 of the chosen 80 or so pianists had bothered to show up to perform in 2015. Absenteeism accounted for a quarter of the pianists invited. Tough times loomed ahead for the competition.

She was deep in thought, and could be excused for her candour when letting out that things were not going too smoothly in the organisation either. She spoke of less-than-polite e-mail exchanges and wistfully lamented, “We used to be such a happy family...” She was probably remembering her old team of Marion Thorpe, her late husband Dr Geoffrey de Keyser, Lord Boyle and others whom she had long outlived.

It was already late in the afternoon and all but one of the visitors had left. I was the very last one, but Dame Fanny Waterman was still up and about. I was reminded to sign her visitors' book, and a few pages before my entry was that of a certain Lang Lang (above) which read, “You are the best!”. At no point did she excuse herself to retire. An ever-attentive host, with long-serving personal assistant Karin Pfautsch by her side, she stayed till the very end, seeing me to the door with a friendly wave when my taxi eventually arrived. It was dusk and the air was damp, but my memory of that afternoon will never leave me. As they say, “There is nothing like a dame”.

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