As a very young musician, Sarah Beth Briggs was set for stardom. David Whetstone catches up with her as she prepares to return to the region.
THE career of Sarah Beth Briggs – “an artist of extraordinary magnetism”, according to The Daily Telegraph – has figured prominently in the pages of this newspaper.
Or at least it did before it became a career in the wage-earning sense of the word.
Sarah (the Americans appreciate the middle name, she says with a laugh) was a piano prodigy, a little girl with dancing fingers whose extraordinary early accomplishments merited many a picture story.
As you can see, we still have the pictures, dating from the days when she was plain Sarah Briggs and the Americans were yet to be seduced by her musical charms.
“I won three classes at the Tynedale Music Festival when I was seven and that kind of started it,” recalls Sarah.
“I started playing when I was four because of my dad. He taught English and drama, but when I was little he would always have some piano pupils to teach at home.
“I was fascinated by it, to be honest. But I think one of the most interesting things is that I wasn’t pushed at all. It makes a huge difference if someone is not telling you to do something all the time. I think that way you are more likely to do it of your own accord.”
Sarah teaches herself now at York University, as well as being in demand to give master classes, so knows what she is talking about.
As a youngster she needed no urging to play the piano and we chronicled her achievements.
She won the Surrey Young Pianist of the Year award when she was 10, beating some 200 other contestants from around the country, and in 1988, when she was 11, she became the youngest ever finalist in the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition.
Her winning ways continued when, four years later, she was joint winner of the International Mozart Competition in Salzburg. A glittering career beckoned, including her American concert debut in 1991.
This month Sarah has a new CD out, featuring Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ Sonata and Benjamin Britten’s Three Character Pieces which she premiered herself back in 1989 (to her chagrin, she isn’t the first to have committed them to disc). It also includes pieces by Brahms, Handel and 20th-Century composer Alan Rawsthorne. She is also returning to the North-East this week to give a recital in Hartlepool.
Turning the clock back a bit, Sarah recalls that her father taught her until she was eight. Then, when she needed more rigorous instruction, she started studying under Denis Matthews, Professor of Music at Newcastle University.
She remembers he told her parents that he had no experience of teaching children, but would take her on as a kind of honorary student. Sarah doesn’t remember feeling at all intimidated. “At that age you are more likely to take what’s given.”
Evidently the arrangement worked well. When she was 14 and a pupil at Central Newcastle High School, Prof Matthews moved to York and the Briggs family uprooted from Gosforth’s Brunton Park and followed.
Shortly after that, he moved again to Birmingham. Sarah travelled across the country for her lessons but then, when she was 16, Prof Matthews committed suicide. He taught me for eight years and I always remember him as the great influence on my musical career,” says Sarah.
The huge amount of travelling she had been doing at least prepared her for the career she reckons she had chosen for herself as early as seven.
Although she can’t quite remember what possessed her to say on Nationwide, the BBC news programme, that she fancied becoming a
nun. “Goodness knows where I got that
from!” Now in her mid-30s, Sarah has performed many recitals and, as you might expect, is widely respected for her performances of Mozart concertos, though she steered clear of the composer when recording her current CD.
“Winning a competition like that, you do tend to get labelled,” she says.
Sarah has collaborated with orchestras including the Hallé, the Royal Philharmonic and the Northern Sinfonia. While she wouldn’t do anything else, she has been performing long enough to know that the glamour of the concert platform doesn’t tell the whole story of a musician’s life, with all the travel, the pressure of audience expectation and the unrelenting need to practise.
Really, she says, she would love to have children. She got married at 22 to the father of TV chef James Martin. He ran the entertainment programme at Castle Howard, the Yorkshire stately home. But after four years they agreed to an amicable parting because she wanted babies and he, being a good bit older, did not.
On the other hand, she concedes: “I am quite career minded. It’s like the acting business in that you are either very busy or not.”
You can get Sarah’s latest CD from her website, www.sarahbethbriggs.co.uk for £11.99 (including postage and packing). It will also be on sale at Hartlepool Town Hall on Friday evening where, at 7.30pm, she performs pieces by Bach, Mozart, Bartok, Brahms, Debussy and Chopin in a Hartlepool Music Society presentation. For tickets, tel: (01429) 890000.