Interview: Dame Fanny Waterman

She's an expert in recognising the x-factor in pianists. And the virtuosi love her for it.


By Jessica Elgot, July 8, 2010
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She is president of an international festival, founder of the world's leading piano competition and a world-renowned teacher who will work in Washington, Seoul, Beijing, Hanover and Leipzig this year alone. At the age of 90, Dame Fanny Waterman shows no sign of slowing down.

As president of the Harrogate International Festival, and one of the most-sought after musical minds in the world, Waterman has a schedule which could keep her busy for another 90 years. "I have a saying, God grant me work until my life is done, and God grant me life until my work is done. I look ahead all the time, I plan ahead. If you don't use it, you lose it," she says.

Once a highly esteemed pianist, and now an honorary member of the Royal Philharmonic Society, Waterman's real joy is teaching, programming and discovering the classical music stars of tomorrow. More than two million people bought her Me and My Piano series of instruction books.

Waterman is clearly thrilled at her presidential appointment, and has set about injecting some of her trademark glamour into proceedings, convincing Prince Charles to become the festival's first royal patron and inviting her old friend, the writer Alan Bennett, to speak when it opens later this month.

Music is a wonderful discipline. It makes you think

"The festival encompasses all the beauty and magic of 'du holde Kunst', as Schubert described it, 'the heavenly art'," she says. "Every music lover will have the opportunity to hear the greatest musical masterpieces performed by the greatest artists.

"It's been a great tradition for many, many years. The Harrogate Festival was the thing to go to in Edwardian times. Edward Elgar played there, Jacqueline du Pré, Mstislav Rostropovich, Daniel Barenboim, all the greats. I truly believe that we have now restored it to its former glory. It's not only a great musical event - it's glamorous too. I love it when people dress up and make it an occasion."

Her presidency, she makes it clear, is not a ceremonial role. "I've suggested all the pianists and all the music for the programme," she says. Her protégés are among the star performers, including Leeds International Piano competition winner and runner-up, Sofya Gulyak and Alexej Gorlatch. Waterman will also give a Schumann masterclass with one of her other protégés, Benjamin Frith.

As co-founder of the Leeds piano competition 36 years ago, Waterman is credited by some of the classical music world's brightest stars as being responsible for their success. Competition entrants have included Radu Lupu, Andras Schiff, Artur Pizarro, and Murray Perahia - the current president of the Jerusalem Music Centre. Lupu kept the date of Waterman's 90th birthday inked into his diary for three years so he could return to the UK to play for her, a gesture she says was "purely out of love".

The affection and dedication is a two-way relationship - Waterman namechecked three of her students when she spoke recently on Desert Island Discs, including Lupu's performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra as one of her eight records.

She is a firm traditionalist - she never strays far from the classical greats like Elgar, Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart and old friend Benjamin Britten. But her passion is new bright young musicians.

"I want to leave a legacy that I have helped to discover some of the greatest young pianists in the world and that my teaching has influenced people, even those who haven't become musicians. Music is a wonderful discipline. You can't play a note without thinking, how loud, how soft, how soon, how late? It makes you think carefully and it gives you judgment. I'm demanding of my pupils but also encouraging. I criticise and I praise and the balance is very important, to understand the psychology of teaching."

Waterman is one of the north of England's greatest champions, forsaking the bright lights of the capital to focus on building a renowned piano competition in Leeds. Three years ago, the council awarded her the freedom of the city.

"I was born in Leeds. So the piano competition was born in Leeds too," she says. "I dreamt it up one night, and I was so excited that I woke up my husband. He was born in London and he said: 'It won't work in Leeds, it has to be in a capital city." So it just goes to show, because it's now the greatest piano competition in the world. I put Leeds on the map."

She credits the success of the festival to her husband, Geoffrey de Keyser, a doctor. His death in 2001 hit her hard. "It was a marriage made in heaven - 57 years, can you believe it? He was my rock and inspiration. I couldn't have done it without him. He was a doctor but his knowledge of music was second to nobody. He chose the repertoire of the Leeds competition three times, he drew up the rules. Those rules are now the exemplary set for music competitions the world over," she says.

As part of a traditional Leeds Jewish family, Waterman has worn her Jewish roots on her sleeve, remarking "everybody knows I'm Jewish, of course they do", but she adds: "I feel that music is my religion because it unites us all. There's no barrier of race, sex, age. I really believe that that's the biggest power in my life."

But, she continues, it is taken for granted by those in power. "It's the Cinderella of the arts. The government ignores it - it doesn't support traditional music like it should. I understand that this new man, Nick Clegg, is musical, or he says he is. So I do hope he will be helpful. But I know I can always count on the support of the city of Leeds," she says.

As long as her pupils continue to want to play her favourite Chopin, Bach and Mozart, Waterman will keep teaching. She says: "Every day I'm hearing the great musical masterpieces performed by the best young musicians. Nobody could be luckier than I am."

Backstory

BORN: In March 1920 in Leeds

FAMILY: Father was Myer Waterman, a Russian Jewish immigrant who came to Britain to work as a jeweller.

CAREER: Studied piano at the Royal College of Music. Performed with the Leeds Symphony Society in 1941. Gave up her concert career after the birth of her first child in 1950 and focused on teaching. Set up the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition in 1961. Given the Freedom of the City of Leeds in 2006

PERSONAL LIFE: Married to Dr Geoffrey de Keyser for 57 years, until his death in 2001. Two sons

The Harrogate Summer Festival runs from July 16-Aug 1. Details at www.harrogate-festival.org.uk

    Last updated: 11:18am, July 8 2010