articles & interviews

Grip and Greet

The Australian
May 7, 2011
Review by Rosalie Higson

IT'S rare to find a woman with as hearty a handshake as acclaimed classical pianist and chamber music stalwart Kathy Selby.

Her grip is not only a legacy of her years at the keyboard but also indicative of the determination she has brought to her musical career, and her efforts to widen the audience for chamber music.

Selby, 48, is the woman behind popular piano trio Trioz and mutable chamber quartet Selby and Friends (as well as the disbanded Macquarie Trio); this year she is touring with Niki Vasilakis (violin), Emma-Jane Murphy (cello) and Yvette Goodchild (viola). She's the entrepreneurial artistic director and performer who can draw up to 900 city workers to the City Recital Hall in Sydney's Angel Place for lunchtime concerts; and, as part of her mission to encourage children to listen to classical music, offers free tickets for children under 12.

"Chamber music had a revival because a lot of people were getting together and playing, and getting together in people's houses, and more people wanted to hear the repertoire," Selby says, looking very pleased. "It's in a very healthy state here, and it's a worldwide trend."

We meet at the City Recital Hall -- one of her favourite venues, and the place where the Selby and Friends monthly lunchtime concerts have proved such a success.

Selby, an attractive brunette with a friendly yet no-nonsense attitude, has always been determined: she took up the piano aged seven and in a remarkably short time was competing, performing in public and on radio. By the time she was 14 her parents and brother had moved with her to the US so she could continue her studies, and she thrived in the competitive classical music milieu.

She attended the Curtis Institute of Music and Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia, and Juilliard School in New York. Her teachers and champions included maestros Bela Siki, Claude Frank, Mieczyslaw Horszowski and Rudolf Firkusny, and she was confident enough to front up to even the most prestigious teachers to request an audition. She was at school and excelling in international competitions, and by the time she was 17 she was signed with a New York agent.

"I wanted it," Selby says. "What I didn't realise at the time was that I didn't like the enormous problems that come with touring, being on your own all the time . . . and I think that's one of the allures of chamber music, that dreadful solitariness can be alleviated by working with various colleagues that you like, and sharing music.

"I didn't figure that out 'til I was 16. A father of a friend of mine said, 'I think you should take some time off, and go to college and just be a normal kid, and don't do this unbelievably focused I-must-be-a-concert-pianist thing.' But I didn't take any time off," she says with a wry smile.

"It was very difficult for me because I was a very young, very sheltered little Australian girl who spent her whole life behind a keyboard. I would play the concerts, which I loved, but then everyone would go home and I would go back to my hotel and I'd be on my own, on the phone to Australia. The bills were dreadful. I ended up going back to New York to study at Juilliard."

Now Selby found herself lonely in the big city. "I started my doctoral program at Juilliard and my family had come back here, and I was in New York . . . it was partially social based. I thought, 'Do I want to live in America? Do I want to marry an American?' I found that I was always trying to date guys who were willing to go elsewhere and I decided that maybe touring wasn't for me, and maybe I don't want to end up in outer Oodnadatta teaching and touring from there, with someone else bringing up my children."

So after 11 years in the US, Selby returned home to Sydney (where, incidentally, she almost immediately met her future husband). For some time she travelled back and forth, fulfilling performance obligations in the US, until in 1991 she severed the relationship with her New York manager: "That was cataclysmic, because they had invested 10 years in me, so it was hard for them. Then I had to sink or swim."

After a brief detour into graduate school studying law here, she took up chamber music, which she loves not only for the companionship of working and performing with fellow musicians but also for the entrepreneurial skills she has developed: "I still get excited when I see the design for a new poster," Selby says.

The Selby and Friends series began in 1989, initially with concerts for children. She then started the Macquarie Trio with the support of Macquarie University vice-chancellor Dianne Yerbury, which was in residence at the university for 16 years, until its famously dramatic break-up in 2006.

"I learned on the job all about everything to do with presenting concerts and touring concerts," she says. "All the nitty-gritty stuff that goes along with programming -- marketing, PR, ticketing, venue hire, box office -- that we don't get taught [at music school] and nobody wants to know about. But it fascinated me and stimulated me and it still does. I can't wait 'til the designer that I work with sends me the new design, and that's very exciting to me, year after year. I think it probably sounds like it was easy, but it's been really hard."

Selby's impressive focus, drive and ambition caused problems when she returned from the US. She says she was considered an upstart who upset the status quo and was the recipient of threatening and abusive letters, all anonymous.

"When I came back here the culture was that there are certain organisations and they're in charge, and they are the ones who present concerts, and that's the way we do things. And we get money from the government -- or we don't -- and if you want to do concerts you have to be asked by one of them," she says. "To be asked is very nice, but you only get asked once every couple of years if you're lucky."

For a time Selby thought she would end up solely as a teacher until her brother -- who had been in advertising on Madison Avenue -- encouraged her to think outside the square. "He talked to me about points of difference and all that sort of stuff, so music was not just something I loved doing but was able to turn into something I could live from, and in the process of doing that I was also able to create work for a lot of other people," she says.

Through those performances for children, where chatting about composers and the performance was an important part of the show, Selby found herself shifting away from the more traditional, reserved style of recitals. "Nowadays when I go to concerts and nothing happens but the music I feel like, 'Hang on a sec, who are those people playing? I want to talk to them a little bit, and could they just say something?' " she says. "When someone does speak from the stage it just changes the entire atmosphere."

Her love of music came from her Czech mother and Romanian father, who fled Europe for Australia during the 1940s, bringing with them a deep love of classical music. They often took their children to music society concerts and performances at the Sydney Town Hall. "I remember that so vividly; I'd always fall asleep and it was a beautiful part of my life," she says. "There was no pushing me to practise: if I didn't practise more than five minutes that day, so what? It was a very healthy attitude. Sometimes I couldn't get off it, and sometimes I'd prefer to go swimming. It was a natural part of growing up."