Q & A – An Interview with Kathy Selby (Full interview)

QandA Kathryn Selby

You can’t go far in the world of piano and chamber music without coming across
Kathryn Selby, who has earned a reputation as one of Australia’s most successful and distinguished pianists. Kathryn’s Selby and Friends chamber music series continues to
delight audiences with the very best that Australia’s chamber musicians have to offer.
Anita Levy was able to steal Kathryn away from her busy schedule of rehearsals and performances to ask her about her music, her career and some of her most standout
musical moments.
AL: I believe you are preparing for your 2013 tour. How do you prepare for such
an event? Do you begin with a particular program? 

KS: It is a difficult and long process actually which involves a lot of research, hours
of listening and hopefully in the end, good judgment and instinct prevails.  I usually
start with an overall idea of what I want to hear during the season, works I would like
to participate in and people I would like to work with. Once I know who is available at
any given time during the year, I then match people up together and program to their
strengths and what I feel would work well in the context of the season as a whole.
It sounds straightforward, but it is a complicated and involved process.
AL: Can you tell me a little about how you formed ‘Selby and Friends’,
Elizabeth Layton, Glen Donnelly and Julian Smiles?
KS: Selby & Friends was actually formed in 1989 as a series of concerts that
introduced children to music, musicians and their instruments. It was presented at the Powerhouse Museum under sponsorship from IBM. It lasted for four years and I
brought it back as a touring entity in 2007. My guests this September are Liz Layton,
Glen and Julian. They do not play with me on each tour, and this tour in early
September is special because it features piano quartets by Mahler, Mozart, Dvorak
and Paul Stanhope. It is a terrific overview of the development of the genre and how
such different composers treated it. For some reason piano quartets are not as common
these days but they must have been quite an incredible force, especially during the
Romantic era as so many great composers chose to write for this medium.
AL: Do you work on your program together? or do you have a pretty clear idea on
what you would like to perform before you approach any other musicians? Do you in
fact play certain types of repertoire with certain musicians?

KS: I devise the programs myself and then check with the individual performers to
make sure I have not programmed a work they particularly don’t like or one with
which they have had a bad experience. I think I do program certain works when I know
a performer well to their particular strengths or idiosyncracies, and sometimes I just
trust my instincts.
AL: Do you prefer to play certain styles of music?
KS: The only style of music I prefer is good music and this can come from any time
throughout music history. Playing as much chamber music as I do has introduced me
to some composers who do not traditionally write for solo piano so in that way I have
been very privileged indeed to be exposed to so much great music across all genres.
AL: I know you love to play on a Steinway. How does this piano make you feel? How
does it influence how or what you play? Can you tell us why it is your favourite?

KS: The Steinway has been a favourite of mine since I was a child. As a pianist, we
must get used to playing on whatever instrument is before us and making it our own
for the time we have it. In other words, we have to learn to “tame the beast” as one of
my dear teachers used to say. The Steinway has a warm, generous but very clean tone,
is quick to respond, and generally plays all by itself. That is the mark of a great
instrument – all you have to do is make it sing and it pretty much does all the work
for you!
AL: Do you ever perform with another pianist either on one piano or two?
KS: Yes indeed, I have done so and absolutely love it. In fact I am always looking for opportunities of this kind as it is a favourite past-time. We pianists are a lonely lot and
getting together with colleagues and making music is more than a treat. I recall playing
four hands with my teacher Claude Frank when I auditioned for him and it is a very
special memory for a young person who was extremely nervous in front of a great
musician with whom she wanted to study – playing Beethoven Symphonies alongside
him will be a memory I treasure all my life.

AL: Do you have a favourite venue where you perform?

KS: Actually I am pretty happy when it comes to venues as the piano can sound
incredibly different in each venue you play in. I do love Angel Place, Elder Hall.
I love Wigmore Hall and Carnegie but I also have enjoyed very much the Herkulessaal
in Munich and the 92nd St. “Y” in New York. What truly makes a great venue is the
audience – if they enjoy themselves you usually do too!
AL: How do you manage your touring and performing life with your busy family life?
KS: This has not been easy, I admit. I do a huge amount of administration along with
my practicing, teaching, touring and rehearsing.  I think as musicians we are taught
from a very young age to use our time well and certainly once I had my first child,
those skills became even more honed. Needless to say, I could not do what I do without
the help of my incredible husband, extraordinary children and generous parents.

AL: Do you also enjoy playing with full orchestras when those opportunities arise?
KS: This is one of those experiences that a pianist always loves – to sit in front of an
orchestra, establish contact with individual members of the orchestra and work with
them and the conductor to produce something wonderful cannot be duplicated by
anything else on earth. I will be working with the SSO later in the year and I am
looking forward to that enormously, but I have worked with community orchestras
and am patron of the Sydney University Symphony Orchestra and working with them
is a thrill each time.
AL: Who were your teachers and mentors? How may they have influenced you?
Does this also influence your choice of music as well as your style of playing?
Can you tell us a little about Rudolf Firkusny?

KS: The teachers who most left a mark on me were:

Eva Morrison – my very first piano teacher who made it something to love
Henry Penn – he taught me how to read music
Nancy Salas – she made it part of my very being and was like a third
grandmother – very special
Bela Siki – he truly taught me how to sit at the keyboard and improved my
technique out of sight
Claude Frank – I think I loved him most and wanted to make him proud of me –
he is an extraordinary teacher who was my friend, mentor and advisor
Rudolf Firkusny – he was my last teacher and one who treated me more like a
colleague than a student. I begged him to teach me when I met him at Marlboro
and had to wait more than a year for a spot in his 2-student class at Juilliard to
open up. He was a warm-hearted, generous man who instilled in me the
confidence I needed and I loved him very much.

AL: You must have met some other remarkable musicians. Are there any memorable
events you can tell us about?

KS: Probably most interesting when I look back are my meetings with, and
performing with, young musicians before they became the incredible forces they are
today – like Joshua Bell, Piers Lane, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and other greats like
Isaac Stern, Rudolf Serkin, Yo Yo Ma.
AL: Can you tell us a little about your studies in the US?
KS: I had a wonderful set of experiences in the US – I was successful and had an
agent who booked me all over the States and Europe and this sort of life was
wonderful for a while. I think back on my time in the States as a perfect time in my
learning life but I definitely came to a point when I decided I wanted to come home to
Australia and live and work here.
AL: How has your career evolved, in terms of how you wanted, or expected it to go?
KS: I think when you plan a career in music, things don’t always go as you expect.
I have had a lot of competing in international competitions, working with great
conductors and orchestras, collaborating with amazing musicians, participating in
wonderful festivals etc. However, my personality is very much a homebody and being
a part of a family is truly important to me and always has been. I think we make our
lives according to what we can manage and I did not like travelling around the world
all the time as much as some of my colleagues and friends. So I made the choice quite
early to settle down and make a life for myself here in Australia. I am an extremely
fortunate person to play as much great music as I do, work with wonderful musicians
all the time, teach such talented young people and keep my mind always stimulated
with all the other work in other areas of music that I do. Perhaps this was not what I
had in mind when I was 8 and thought I wanted to be an internationally roaming
pianist, but then we grow up, learn who we are and make the life we were meant
to live.
AL: What have the milestones been in your musical career?
KS: I think I mentioned many above but also playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra
and Tokyo String Quartet and in fact, recording all the CDs with Macquarie Trio –
these were wonderful experiences and enormous teaching experiences as an individual
and part of an ensemble.
AL: Over the last months we have all so enjoyed the wonderful young musicians in
the Sydney International Piano Competition. I know that you have been a prizewinner
in many competitions. How do you think these wins affected your life and your career opportunities?

KS: Yes these are vital for any young person – the world is a difficult place for a
soloist and extremely competitive so coming to the attention of conductors, agents –
this is vital for the career. One must be prepared though and have lots of repertoire
ready to go. They are stressful events in your life but I look back on the Van Cliburn,
Leeds, Rubinstein and Queen Elizabeth with a great deal of pleasure.
AL: Have you any plans to release a new CD?
KS: Always planning but I imagine it will come in good time. I have a lot of CDs to
my name and I am proud of them so I want the next one to be special as well.
AL: Can you tell us a little about your current Tour 4 programs?
KS: Right now I am preparing for this tour – Mozart, Stanhope, Mahler and Dvorak –
an incredible program of piano quartets – what a treat. The tour starts on the 1st
September so it is a busy time now. Uppermost in my mind though is the 2013 season
which is about to be announced – I have guest artists from Israel, Finland, Britain,
the US, New Zealand and Australia next year with lots of favourites from Mozart,
Mendelssohn, Schubert, Brahms, Beethoven, Shostakovich and so much more –
I think I am focusing more on the performer at the moment as I will be working with
some truly exceptional people who rarely if ever come to these shores so I am very
excited about it all.

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