I wanted to talk with Kathy during her current US tour with her long-term duo partner Yo-Yo Ma. The two have a long partnership, going back to the summer of 1978, when Kathy came back to her student flat in London to find that her roommate had, without mentioning it, sublet her half of the flat to a young cellist and his wife. From surprise roommates to international touring soloists, 35 years later... For six weeks, Yo-Yo, his wife Jill, and Kathy cohabitated in less than ideal circumstances. Kathy was practicing "around 7 hours a day" for the Leeds Competition (in which she would take the prize that would launch her career), her piano situated right up against the adjoining bedroom wall. Such close quarters can engender either intense dislike or intimate friendship. The latter resulted, and some years later, Jill suggested that the two try their hands at a duo concert.
These three decades later, playing together has developed into the best kind of shorthand, the rare long and deep musical friendship that allows "such great trust, the ability to take risks and know that you won't throw the other one off, the capacity to keep reinventing." As Kathy puts it: "Sometimes one tiny little change can lead to something totally different. If you understand how to keep the music alive, it doesn't matter how many times you play a piece - it's different every time." She laughs as she tries to calculate how many times the pair has played Saint-Saens' The Swan. "9 times out of 10, that's our encore, and I never, ever get sick of it."
In the frenetic reality of today's touring circuit, such long-term ensemble partnerships are becoming increasingly tricky to establish and maintain. We trade partners easily and frequently, a new morality maybe, with a potential for thrill and excitement, but without the the deepening and growth of a long and stable marriage. For two world-class soloists to look back over three decades, back before "anyone was anyone", to draw on all those years of a musical and personal relationship, must be something quite spectacularly comforting and comfortable.
I asked Kathy, joking, how she feels about playing with to the biggest household name in classical music, and, more seriously, how she deals with the perennial misnomer "accompanist" that continues to plague the collaborative pianist. Every chamber music pianist confronts this particularly obnoxious problem - the ongoing struggle for equal billing between instrumentalist and pianist always at issue. Some reach for extreme solutions, like insisting on the technically authentic piano-first listing of the Classical duo sonata repertoire, or a sometimes-advantageous alphabetical billing. Still the problem persists. And when your duo partner is Yo-Yo Ma, the problem, presumably, gets a little bit worse. She's equanimous about the whole issue: "I'm a pianist and Yo-Yo's a cellist. That's what we do. I'm not stupid, I know why most people come to the concert! Of course he’s a huge name, but because we go back to a time when we knew each other before any of these things were happening, I don’t feel in the shadow. I know that he needs to be challenged by me, that we need to feed off each other If I went into some subservient role he'd be bored out of his mind!"
Knowing the immense importance of the musical collaborations that have fueled Ma's musical life, it's clear that this partnership is in all ways a meeting of minds, a match between equals, and a duet between old and dear friends.
Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott perform at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday, January 29 at 8pm. Information-->