30 years of the International Piano Series remembered

Wednesday, March 20, 2019 - 17:17

The 2018/19 season marks the 30th anniversary of the International Piano Series. From its earliest beginnings with two recitals by Maurizio Pollini, the Series has become synonymous with showcasing the talents of the grand masters alongside the best of a current generation of rising stars. To celebrate this momentous occasion, we spoke to leading figures of the International Piano Series about their most memorable stories from behind-the-scenes.

Nervous performers

Susan Rivers (Coordinator and Concert Manager, 1994 – 2001): ‘My most worrying moment was when a greatly revered but known to be nervous pianist was threatening not to turn up for his concert in Queen Elizabeth Hall. He was fine in the morning rehearsal but when he returned home the fear of performing to a London audience obviously hit him badly. His manager spoke to him on the phone and eventually had to go round to his home to coax him out. Meanwhile, the audience were arriving and I had to inform the house manager of the real possibility that the concert may have to be cancelled. Just at the point, we were agreeing what I announcement I should make to the audience, the artist’s manager tapped me on the shoulder to say he was backstage. I thought “phew, what a relief!”’

Managing artists

Tracy Lees (Associate Director, 2001 – present): ‘Back in the early 2000s at Southbank Centre you had to go all the way to the shops near Waterloo station to buy emergency provisions. I remember one recital which had a lot of extra technical work. We were really pushed for time, rehearsing up until the last minute with no time for breaks. About 10 minutes before the recital was due to start, the pianist said she really needed some fruit – maybe a banana... There was no time or nowhere on site to buy fruit. Then I remembered that I actually had a banana in my handbag left over from my lunch which I produced with a flourish!  She was pretty surprised and it was definitely a “being in the right place, at the right time” moment.’

Kaarina Meyer (Associate Director of Tours and Projects, 1989 – 2000): ‘Although I took on the planning of the series, my predecessor Jane Gray was still there at every recital, making sure all was well backstage; the piano ready and the artist happy. Some of her “duties” included holding a lighted cigarette off stage which one or two heavy smokers would take a puff of in between pieces! Can you imagine such a thing today?’

Maurizio Pollini 

SR: ‘One of my highlights had to be the chronological performance of the complete Beethoven Sonatas by Pollini over seven concerts during the 1996/97 season.  We followed their journey through this illustrious repertoire with bated breath, assisting the Maestro with a seemingly endless supply of espresso coffee! The Royal Festival Hall concerts were completely sold out  – standing room only  – and the last performance resulted in an instant standing ovation, a simply unforgettable occasion.’

Nick Breckenfield (UK Promotions Manager, working with SR, 1994 – 98): [continuing on from SR] ‘Very late in the day, we learned that Pollini was not including the two small Op. 49 sonatas. Nick Marston, who had written an introductory article for the programme that had been entitled “Composing the 32”, had to do a very quick rewrite as it would have looked odd with only 30 sonatas on offer. I’m glad to say that Pollini has since recorded the two Op. 49 sonatas.’

Inventive technicians 

TL: ‘We had a famous Russian pianist performing and I was expecting him in the morning. I was waiting for hours and finally received a message that he was coming “in the afternoon”.  He finally turned up at 5.30pm, played a few notes, muttered something disgruntled to Peter Salisbury, the piano technician, and wandered off. He came back a bit later, played a few more notes and declared he was satisfied. I asked Peter what he had done – he’d put cardboard under the hammers! Anyway, it seemed to work. Another mystery in the art of piano tuning…’

Old-style marketing

KM: ‘Before the Internet, we relied on printed leaflets and brochures, and listings in the press to promote our concerts. Old concert marketing materials and programmes were printed in one colour only and looking at them now they seem deadly dull. It’s a wonder anyone was inspired to attend! But music lovers will always find their fix.’

The IPS audience

NB: ‘Over the years I have always been amazed by the kindness and friendliness of regular audiences who always liked to chat after recitals. I know some of them are no longer with us either, but every IPS recital I go to I remember them. Without them, there wouldn’t be an International Piano Series.’



International Piano Series continues in 2018/19, culminating in a weekend dedicated to the music of Stockhausen, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich. Take a look at the full list of upcoming recitals, now.

see concert listings