As chairwoman of the UK's most prestigious piano competition, Dame Fanny Waterman, defends the rigours of testing musicians
Finding a spare moment to speak with Dame Fanny Waterman, co-founder, chairman and self-styled "field marshal" behind the Leeds International Piano Competition, is not a straightforward task. She has recently returned from a lecture tour of South Korea, and as soon as this year's competition concludes she'll be jetting off to sit on another jury in Japan. She still gives private lessons – her youngest student is six while the most remote flies in for the day from Milan. And she has just taken on another job as president of the Harrogate International festival.
Dame Fanny will be 90 next year. Yet her status as a legend among piano players has long been assured, as she and her colleague, Marion Thorpe, literally wrote the book on modern keyboard technique. There is scarcely a beginner in the world who has not wrangled at some point with one of Waterman and Thorpe's 30 volumes. The publisher Faber & Faber recently held a reception to mark the two-millionth sale of Waterman's series for youngsters, Me and My Piano – the most popular piano method in China.
Artists such as Murray Perahia, Radu Lupu and Dimitri Alexeev launched their careers by taking first prize at Leeds; while Andras Schiff, Peter Donohoe and Mitsuko Uchida are among the illustrious runners-up. Now in its 16th year, the triennial competition is firmly established alongside the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow and the Van Cliburn in Fort Worth as the most lucrative prize, in terms of profile and career advancement, for pianists under the age of 30.
Yet doubts persist about whether such competitions are the best means of producing fully rounded artists; or whether the hot-housing of young talent in the former Soviet states and the Far East presents a level playing field. The last British winner was Ian Hobson 25 years ago. In 2006, the 18-year-old South Korean Sunwook Kim became the competition's youngest winner since 17-year-old Michael Roll took first prize in 1963. This year's group of finalists includes one from China, Qi Xu, who is 14 years old.
Waterman has heard these arguments before and is quick to dismiss them. "Human beings are competitive by nature," she says. "Ever since civilisation began, we've felt the urge to test ourselves against others and achieve personal bests. It's unfortunate that 'competition' seems to have become an unfashionable word of late – but you tell me, what's the better alternative?"
This is a typical Waterman response – articulate, forthright and ultimately unanswerable. It's immediately apparent how she became such a formidably successful teacher, and the living room of her home in Leeds is full of evidence of the esteem in which she is held. It's comfortably spacious enough to accommodate a twin pair of Steinway concert grands purchased on a Bond Street shopping trip with Alfred Brendel and Clifford Curzon. On top of one is a personally dedicated manuscript by Benjamin Britten, while above the fireplace is a framed postcard from the influential French composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, accepting Waterman's invitation to join the Leeds panel of judges.
"Boulanger said she would come on one absolute condition," Waterman recalls, "and that was that there would be no discussion whatsoever among the judges. Each member of the panel would simply put three names – first, second and third – into a ballot. And that is the way it has been done ever since. Our rules have set a standard for all international competitions and, unlike many, we have never been tainted with a whiff of scandal."
It is fair to say that some of the results have been a little contentious, however. There was some embarrassment when the inaugural competition in 1963 was won by Waterman's own star pupil, Michael Roll, though she was not among the voting panel. She was six years later, however, when the brilliant Romanian pianist Radu Lupu failed to be included in the final round, despite being a clear favourite among the public. Waterman simply expanded the number of finalists so that Lupu, in fifth place, could go through.
She remains unrepentant about this: "It was a travesty," she says. "I told the judges, look, if Radu Lupu doesn't make the final, I'm not organising another competition. Simple as that." Lupu not only made the final but went on to become one of the competition's most popular winners.
So is it not always the case that the right person wins? "The first thing I'd say is that neither I nor any of the other judges has a crystal ball," she replies. "And you have to remember that it is not always the best artists who sustain the longest career so much as the ones with the temperament best suited to the job. Living out of a suitcase, being separated from family, dealing with criticism – these are variables which are impossible to predict."
As a measure of the stamina demanded of a professional concert pianist, you only need consider the schedule that awaits the winner of this year's competition. In addition to the £15,000 prize money and the chance to appear on television with the Hallé orchestra under Mark Elder, there is a page-long list of compulsory engagements – some glamorous, such as the BBC Philharmonic and London Philharmonic; others less so. It takes a particular kind of dedication to perform with equal commitment to the Sunderland Pianoforte Society or Welwyn Garden Concert Club.
Waterman, the daughter of a Leeds jeweller, had a promising concert career of her own which was curtailed by the intervention of the second world war and the birth of her first child. But she belongs to a remarkable generation of British pianists, including Clifford Curzon and Myra Hess, who studied under the revered piano teacher Tobias Matthay. It gives her a unique vantage point to survey the evolution of the instrument over half a century. What does she consider to be the major developments in playing styles in the last 50 years?
"We are seeing players becoming technically more accomplished at an increasingly young age. I've been to conservatories in China where there are children under the age of 10 with 20 concertos in their repertoire. But the truly special players – a Lupu or a Perahia – still only come along once or twice in a generation. A lot of milk produces only the tiniest amount of cream."
Waterman is already finalising plans for the 2012 competition, as well as putting her stamp on her new role as president of the Harrogate festival. ("I intend to return [it] to the glory days. I've already called Bryn Terfel and Alan Bennett.") And in her 90th year, she still looks forward to 14-hour days scrutinising every one of the 88 performers in this competition.
"My first rule is: no alcohol at mealtimes. I've been on far too many judging panels where people have fallen asleep. But as long as I can continue to pace myself I see no reason to retire. Music is one of the great restorative forces in the world."
To illustrate the point, she brings over a photograph of herself with Gordon Brown and a group of young musicians taken at a reception at Downing Street to mark the launch of the 2009 competition earlier this year. "The prime minister had been delayed because it was a difficult day. They'd been delivering the budget. His wife was on standby to take over, but a young cellist from Tbilisi played so beautifully that Mr Brown came in to listen. He stayed and chatted for a while, and for those 10 minutes it seemed as if the cares of the world had lifted."
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