30 years of the International Piano Series remembered

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

Think Aloud podcast series

Think Aloud is where you will hear some of the biggest and most influential names in modern literature, art, music and performance share their stories, thoughts and ideas. Each month presenter Harriet Fitch Little is joined in conversation by the people shaping arts and culture today.

Bringing the elephants of Circus 1903 to life

In late December, 2018 we welcome the thrills and daredevil entertainment of Circus 1903 to Southbank Centre as they brought their spectacular turn-of-the-century inspired show to our Royal Festival Hall for its European premiere.

I really wanted to go back to the turn of the century where the acts were breathtaking, dangerous, edge of your seats, and where animals were really at the forefront of the show.
Simon Painter, Creative Producer, Circus 1903

But how do you make animals a central part of a modern circus when the audience is in collective agreement that to have traditionally wild animals performing tricks is unethical? For Circus 1903, the solution to this dilemma came from the acclaimed theatre production War Horse. Taking inspiration from the play’s incredible equine puppets, Circus 1903 set out to bring circus elephants back to the ring; a journey you can see in this trio of videos.

Bringing the Elephants to Life: Part 1 | Circus 1903

The reason I brought elephants back to the circus is because they are the classic, grandest, and most overwhelmingly amazing creatures that you’d ever see in a circus show.
Simon Painter, Creative Producer, Circus 1903


In this second video Circus 1903’s Creative Producer, Simon Painter explains why they chose to use puppetry rather than animatronics to bring the elephants to life. And Mervyn Millar of Significant Object – the company tasked with creating the puppets – explains how their creations help bring to life the contrasting characters of the mother and baby elephant.

Bringing the Elephants to Life Part 2 | Circus 1903

You fall in love with these animals because of their emotions, and that really happens entirely through the movement; it was really about the emotion and bringing these animals to life on stage.
Simon Painter, Creative Producer, Circus 1903


Creating puppets that are both easy to use, but also believable as animals is no easy task, and in this final video, Millar explains how it falls on the puppeteers to marry these two aspects together. The puppeteers themselves also describe how they work together as a team to breathe life into the elephants and channel their respective personalities into the performance.

Bringing the Elephants to Life: Part 3 | Circus 1903

We’ve got so much respect for the puppeteers who are going to turn this into a show. It’s a real pleasure to work in something that is absolutely about emotional connection through performance.
Mervyn Millar, Significant Object (engineers of the Circus 1903 puppets)


With a passion for works that defy categorisation, Southbank Centre is the place to see things you have never seen on stage before. Dance, theatre, comedy, cabaret and all sorts in between, brought to you by international artists and up and coming names. 

upcoming performances


Every 27 September

Every day at Southbank Centre, since 3 May 1951, we have made plans, booked artists, put on performances and created unforgettable experiences for audiences. And, for each and every one of those days, we have kept a record.

This means that choosing any date at random to explore the last 67 years, you can uncover the workings behind the UK’s largest arts centre. There is nothing particularly out of the ordinary about 27 September, but this look back through our records for that date over the years, give a snapshot of the planning that goes into each and every event that takes place here at Southbank Centre. Events, some of you may have been with us to enjoy.

Simply click on an image below to find out more about it.

Ravi Shankar, programme, 1968
A programme for Ravi Shankar at Royal Festival Hall, 27 September 1968
Ravi Shankar, programme, 1968
This is the cover of the programme for ‘Ravi Shankar’s Festival From India’ in our Royal Festival Hall, 27 September 1968. The event was a showcase of Indian music featuring several brilliant musicians whom Shankar had brought over from India for this tour, including Shivkumar Sharma (santoor), Sabri Khan (sarangi), Sharad Kumar (shehnai), Palghat Raghu (mridangam), Jitendra Abhisheki and Lakshmi Shankar (vocals). This was Ravi Shankar's 11th Royal Festival Hall performance, having made his debut here with us on 4 October 1958. By the mid 1960s, following relentless touring and a series of classic records and film scores, Ravi Shankar had come to embody Indian culture in the West. [Image credit: Shankar Presentations Ltd.]
Nina Simone, flyer, 1988
A flyer for Nina Simone at Royal Festival Hall, 27 September 1988
Nina Simone, flyer, 1988
On 27 September 1988, ‘the High Priestess of Soul’, the legendary singer songwriter and piano player Nina Simone took to our Royal Festival Hall stage. Simone was a frequent visitor to London in the 1980s, performing regularly at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, where she recorded the 1984 album Live at Ronnie Scott’s. Her special guest for this performance was a fellow Ronnie Scott’s regular, the Liverpudlian jazz singer and songwriter Thomas Lang.
Days of Finnish Music Making, programme, 1975
A programme for the Finnish Music Making festival, 21-28 September 1975
Days of Finnish Music Making, programme, 1975
Taking place across our three main concert venues, Days of Finnish Music Making lasted for a full week in late September 1975. For our date of 27 September the programme includes details of a Finnish Jazz Workshop in Queen Elizabeth Hall, led by the pianist and composer Heikki Sarmanto, and a performance from the Finnish Radio Chamber Choir in Purcell Room.
Southbank Centre lettings diary, 1988
A page from our 1988-89 lettings diary, detailing 26 September - 2 October 1988
Southbank Centre lettings diary, 1988
You're probably wondering, 'what’s a lettings diary?' Well, kept in the planning office, lettings diaries recorded details of activities and events booked in each of our venues. Each event would be literally ‘pencilled in’, then overwritten in pen, and ticked after they had been confirmed. Although the 1980s diary information looks complex, there were fewer events at that time (around 1,200 each year, compared with more than 3,500 during 2017/18) and bookings were limited to indoor venues. Now, any location across the site is a potential performance space. Entries for 27 September 1988 include rehearsals for Parker-Smith (8.30-13.00) and London Philharmonic Orchestra (14.00-17.00) in the Royal Festival Hall. There is a Mozart Bicentenary meeting in the Waterloo Bar at 11.00, whilst over in the Queen Elizabeth Hall there is a piano being tuned (9.15-12.15), the pianist Melvyn Tan is bringing in a fortepiano (13.10) and a concert from the Budapest Wind Ensemble (19.45).
Visitor inspecting documents in the archive
T.E. Bean, Royal Festival Hall General Manager, 1951
The Royal Festival Hall General Manager, at work in 1951
Visitor inspecting documents in the archive
T.E. Bean, Royal Festival Hall General Manager, 1951
T.E. Bean, was the first General Manager of the Royal Festival Hall, having previously managed the Halle Orchestra. He is pictured here in 1951 in front of the venue’s wall-mounted event booking system which was in use until the late 1980s. The system involved colour-coded cards for orchestras and promoters being slotted into the boards to allocate concert dates and avoid programme clashes.
London Philharmonic Orchestra, contract, 1953
A contract for 23 concert performances from London Philharmonic Orchestra
London Philharmonic Orchestra, contract, 1953
On 27 September 1953, the London Philharmonic Orchestra were in the final rehearsals ahead of a run of 23 Royal Festival Hall concerts, beginning on 30 September and running on to 3 June 1954. The concert dates are listed on this contract to let the hall, which was signed on 4 May 1953.
Southbank Centre attendance book, 1968
The attendance book for our main venues, detailing September 1968
Southbank Centre attendance book, 1968
This attendance book for our three main venue spaces  - Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room - actually spans January 1957 to June 1970, but we’ve picked out this page from September 1968. Each page details the number of tickets sold for each concert, and the number of complimentary tickets. On 27 September Ravi Shankar’s performance packed out Royal Festival Hall with 2,925 tickets sold, including 118 complimentary tickets. On the same night we also hosted the Northern Sinfonia Orchestra in Queen Elizabeth Hall in front of a slightly more modest crowd of 361, 85 of whom received complimentary tickets.
Burl Ives, programme, 1953
Programme for Burl Ives concert at Royal Festival Hall on 27 September, 1953
Burl Ives, programme, 1953
Pictured here are the inside pages of the programme produced for a concert by the American folk singer and actor Burl Ives at Royal Festival Hall on 27 September, 1953. The pages detail Ives setlist, and as you can hopefully make out, have been annotated with handwritten timings for each of the songs in the performance.
Writer and musician George Melly welcomes the millionth visitors to Royal Festival Hall
George Melly, 1982
George Melly welcomes the millionth Royal Festival Hall visitor in 1982
Writer and musician George Melly welcomes the millionth visitors to Royal Festival Hall
George Melly, 1982
The unmistakable figure of writer and musician George Melly stands in front of a Greater London Council display board as he welcomes the 1,000,000th visitor to the Royal Festival Hall in 1982. Unfortunately we are none the wiser as to who the two people pictured with Melly are, nor which of them is the 1,000,000th visitor. Perhaps you know them. Perhaps it’s you. If so we would love to hear from you.

Think Aloud podcast - Ask a Curator Day

Ask the curators: the stresses and secrets of programming by Southbank Centre: Think Aloud

In the fourth edition of Think Aloud, we join the #AskACuratorDay celebrations to find out about some of the most surprising, challenging and moving things that go on behind the scenes for the people pulling together our artistic programme.

Our regular host, arts and culture journalist Harriet Fitch-Little, is joined by: Bengi Unsal,  Senior Contemporary Music Programmer; Debo Amon, Literature Programmer; Rupert Thomson, Senior Programmer Performance & Dance and Jessica Cerasi, art curator and author of Who's Afraid of Contempoprary Art?

Tune in now to find out what career moments have moved them to tears and why a contemporary art curator would need to be an expert in the life cylcle of the silk worm, amongst other things.

You do get some hilarious tech riders - we've got a show coming up with a full sized stuffed horse and also one with a live dog that will be brought in from New York via Paris
Rupert Thomson, Senior Programmer Performance & Dance

Don’t forget to subscribe to Think Aloud on your preferred podcast listening platform.

Have you visited the new National Poetry Library website yet?

The National Poetry Library website has been completely redesigned and we would love to know what you think of the sparkling new version.

What's different? The journey started back in summer 2017 when we invited some existing users and people new to the library and website in to meet us and tell us their ideas about how we could improve the site.

There was a resounding consensus...

We’d like to see more poetry on the site please
Website focus group attendees

Poetry front & centre

Poetry Library poem a day homepage2

Poetry is now front and centre of the new website. We’ll be selecting some of the most inspiring text, image, audio and video poems we can find to display in our new homepage ‘Poem a day’ feature. On other days a randomised poem will be selected from our collection to surprise and delight.

Find out more about the relaunch and have a look around the new site.

what’s new?


Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room are back! What will you see here first?

We’re so, so happy that as of April 2018, Southbank Centre will be back to full power with the reopening of Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, completing our Let The Light In renovations.

If the incredible reaction to the return of Hayward Gallery is anything to go by, we know that Southbank Centre fans are going to be clamouring to see what’s new. So we’ve put together a little guide to help you decide what your first events will be.

For architecture enthusiasts: Concrete Dreams

Queen Elizabeth Hall - East wing -1967

The poor architects of our Queen Elizabeth Hall – they threw so much love and passion into its creation only to see it voted the ugliest building in the country by Daily Mail readers, when it opened in 1967. Now we try and right this wrong with our Concrete Dreams experience in Purcell Room giving a unique insight into our iconic brutalist buildings. It’s free to come but you need to book in advance. Takes place from 10 April – 1 May.

book now


For classical fans: The opening gala – Chineke Orchestra!

#AfricaUtopia | Chineke! Orchestra - conducted by Wayne Marshall

There are just a handful of tickets left for our opening concert in Queen Elizabeth Hall, which stars the incredible Chineke! Orchestra. It’s going to be an electrifying event, made all the more symbolic by the fact Chineke! were born in the same venue, performing their first ever concert here on the day before the venue closed for renovation. Relive that night in the video above, and make sure you join us for their concert on 9 April.

book now


Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Roger Montgomery -Is seeing believing- SC1

The chance to hear not one but two of Mozart’s thrilling Horn Concertos, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Sir Roger Norrington is just too good to pass up. Queen Elizabeth Hall is a great venue for work such as this – it creates true intimacy between audience and performer, while letting all those delicious musical vibrations have plenty of space. The concert takes place on 11 April.

book now

And that, of course, is not our only classical offering – here are a couple of the other names joining us in Queen Elizabeth Hall soon.

Tyondai Braxton
Benjamin Grosvenor


Something genre defying: London Sinfonietta & Philip Venables

A short introduction to the music of Philip Venables

The London Sinfonietta return to Queen Elizabeth Hall in typically eclectic fashion with the world premiere of Philip Venables’ The Gender Agenda. Billed as The Generation Game meets South Park, it incorporates a gameshow, audience involvement, cabaret, spoken word and an irreverent look at gender inequality. This well-rounded performance takes place 12 April.  What else could you want?

book now

That said, if you do, in fact, want something else, don't worry, we've got more cross arts events you can see.

Hannah Peel


Literature lovers: Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe

It’s 60 years since the publication of Achebe’s classic novel of pre and post-colonial life in Nigera. We’re celebrating with this abridged reading, which stars the likes of Chibundu Onuzo, Lucian Msamati, Olu Jacobs, Adesua Etomi and Kele Okereke. If you love the book, you’ll enjoy it in a whole new light. If you’ve never read it, find out why it’s such a huge influence. Takes place on 15 April.

book now

If your literary interests lie elsewhere, why not take a look at one of the below events instead.

The Golden Notebook
Fifty Poems from Five Decades


Must have GSOH: Richard Herring – Oh Frig I’m 50 – 4 May

Richard Herring on Matt Forde's Unspun

Richard Herring’s turning 50 this year and naturally he’s taking stock of things. The very funny stand-up tracks his path from overgrown kidult to responsible parent, and assesses his chances of receiving a 100th birthday telegram from the Queen.

book now

Want more comedy? We've got plenty coming up as you can see on the link below.

Great stand-up comedy at Southbank Centre

no ticket? come anyway!

Of course you don’t have to book at ticket to come and see what’s happening. There are plenty of free events and the foyers are open in the hours ahead of shows so do feel free to pop in, have a look – and let us know what you think!

find out more

In conversation with Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson

In conversation: Víkingur Ólafsson

Visionary and pioneering Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson has been described as everything from 'daring and unique' to 'Iceland's Glenn Gould'. We were lucky enough to have the hugely talented muscian join us as part of our International Piano Series in Autumn 2017.

Ahead of his performance at Southbank Centre, Olafsson sat down with us for a pre-concert talk in which he discussed how he prepares for performances, of playing Bach and Chopin, and his own rare condition known as synesthesia, which means he associates colours with pitch.

I have this thing from when I was five or six years old… I have perfect pitch or absolute hearing, so when I would think about F minor that would be blue for me, A major would be yellow, B major is purple
Víkingur Ólafsson

Hear more from great pianists in 2018 with our International Piano Series, which runs until June.

International Piano Series

Backstage with M.I.A. at Meltdown

M.I.A. backstage at Meltdown

Go behind the scenes at Meltdown, with an exclusive video of M.I.A. as the curator of this year’s festival gets ready to perform her own headline set. 

M.I.A. closes her own-curated Meltdown Festival with a tightly executed, gapless run of career hits that is quite simply incredible.
Stuart Stubbs, Loud and Quiet

Meltdown was the perfect festival for M.I.A.’ wrote Sam Wolfson in The Guardian, and it’s easy to see why. An artist who has always sought to push limits and test boundaries, she has, over the course of Meltdown’s ten days, pushed queer-rap and French afro-trap from music’s margins into Southbank Centre’s sizable spotlights, and brought Grime to a stage more familiar with Grieg.


Performing in front, behind and occasionally on top of a giant set of prison bars, the show encompassed MIA’s decade of agit-pop, with images of unrest and incarceration flashing behind her.
Sam Wolfson, The Guardian

On Sunday 18 June, M.I.A. brought Meltdown to a spectacular end with a show that, like the festival, was distinctly hers. This video takes you backstage at Southbank Centre ahead of that performance, into the corridors and dressing rooms of Royal Festival Hall, as M.I.A. and her dancers get ready to perform their set.

Her lyrics are a direct confrontation to the matters she cares about most, whether it be the Syrian refugee crisis, or the recent tragedy of the fire in Grenfell Tower in London, and is felt clearly. MIA is relevant as much today as she was with her ground-breaking debut, Arular.
Selina Begum, The Upcoming

An artist who has often been caricatured as feisty, testy even, by interviewers and media commentators, this exclusive footage gives a welcome chance to break that down and see M.I.A. straight-up. The artist at ease in her own space as she jokes with her support crew before taking to the Southbank Centre stage.

If ‘AIM’ really is the end, M.I.A. leaves more than Meltdown in better shape than she found it… We’re going to miss her more than we probably think.
Stuart Stubbs, Loud and Quiet

Video courtesy of Adriano Vilanova Smith and George Cullen

What the Queen Elizabeth Hall Roof Garden means to its volunteer gardeners

Meet Pluto, one of the many volunteer gardeners who, with Providence Row and Grounded Ecotherapy, maintain our Queen Elizabeth Hall Roof Garden.

Created in 2011 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain, the Roof Garden, Queen Elizabeth Hall has, since its inception, been looked after by volunteers who have previously experienced homelessness, addiction or mental health problems.

The volunteering programme aims to provide support and opportunities for both personal and professional development, and is coordinated by Providence Row, a London homeless charity, and Grounded Ecotherapy, who provide therapy through horticulture for people who have lived through addiction or homelessness.

Pluto has been volunteering in our garden since the summer of 2016, after being introduced to the programme by a friend who works for Providence Row. He kindly took a break during a busy week of planting to talk to us about the impact the Roof Garden, Queen Elizabeth has had on his life.

Volunteer gardeners - container steps

What prompted you to start working in Queen Elizabeth Hall Roof Garden?

I started last summer. I suffer from depression, and during last year I had about five people that I was really close to pass away, so I needed to get out the house and stop staring at the walls.

And does gardening help?

Oh yeah it’s great, and you get your hands dirty. I’ve been feeling better because I get the chance to come down here and do some gardening. If I haven’t got appointments, then I’m up at eight o’clock in the morning and I’m raring to go.

How would you describe Roof Garden, Queen Elizabeth Hall to someone who didn’t know anything about it?

The garden is very therapeutic. There are a lot of plants, a lot of birds, like that one there. [Pluto points to a bird on a nearby branch] She’s back again, she’s singing to us. She has a nest just up there.

Finished flower bed on the Southbank Centre container steps

Do you have a favourite part of the garden that you’ve worked on?

Well I’m doing the planting on the container stairs, that lead down to Southbank Centre Square, at the moment. I did all the planting yesterday. As soon as I planted the purple, yellow and red flowers, the bees came and pollinated the flowers and it was like, ‘wow, brilliant.’

Does volunteering here give you a sense of achievement?

Yes it does. It’s really fulfilling, in knowing that you’ve done something for the environment and it makes the place look good. I’ve made some good friends too, and I’m learning a few things as well.

Do you feel that volunteering here in the garden can help you in the future?

The skills I’ve gained in the garden will help me to get up and get out early in the morning. And the experience I get here is helping to keep my mind occupied too.

The Roof Garden, Queen Elizabeth Hall is open throughout the summer from 10am to 10pm daily.

support the Roof Garden

Your donations help Pluto and his fellow volunteers to keep getting up early in the morning, getting their fingers dirty, and keep our garden looking beautiful.