But what excites him most is playing in Ireland, where his career has been given “a real new lease of life.” Based for some of the year in Castletownbere — he has been coming here for eight years — Syme will return to Fota House on Friday. His programme will include masterpieces of the piano by Chopin, Liszt, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Debussy and Gershwin.
A graduate of the renowned Juilliard School of Music and a protégé of the late master, Jorge Bolet, Syme’s following here is based on concerts he performs in his home in West Cork.
Of Ireland, Syme says: “There is something about the love of the people here, for music and the arts in general, that makes me want to perform here. I started by having a few people over on odd nights and afternoons throughout the summer months. It became a very popular event, and was recorded by RTÉ Radio and filmed by Nationwide with Mary Kennedy. It’s not really all that formal. We welcome guests and the atmosphere is really friendly. I explain the music to the people and tell them anecdotes about the composers. I’m now doing these recitals about 25 times a year. That’s how much I love the place.”
Last summer, Christy Moore attended a recital. “He was incognito, but I recognised him immediately. I didn’t make any big deal of it. It was my wife who pointed him out to me. I know his song, Ride On. I started playing the introduction of it, using the rhythm that Christy uses. A girl in the audience videoed it and Christy started singing the song.” Former West Cork resident, actress Maureen O’Hara “used to be one of our biggest followers, until she went back to the States,” Syme says.
Syme has recorded 20 CDs with orchestras such as the Royal Philharmonic, the Vienna Symphony and the Czech National Symphony. Last year, he released a recording, Music from the Ahabeg Road.
His favourite composer is Chopin, but he also loves Franz Liszt. For his Fota House recital, he is rehearsing “a monumental piece by Liszt. It’s a Wagner overture to the opera, Tannhauser, that Liszt transcribed for piano. Liszt himself didn’t think that even two people in the world could play it. He thought that, maybe, one other person besides himself could do it.”
Syme watched Bolet play the piece. “I’ve never heard anyone play it live since then. There are recordings of it that are 60 and 70 years old. I avoided playing it, because it’s so difficult, as well as being one of the greatest pieces for piano. I said I’ll do it when I’m grown up. But I’m over 60. What am I waiting for? I’m really looking forward to playing it at Fota House.”
Syme says there have been “peaks and valleys” in his career. “I expected to be a household name worldwide by 30.” Ireland is helping him to fulfil that ambition.