Beara-based concert pianist will tell incredible stroke story at UCC recital

March 2nd, 2023 7:10 AM

By Jackie Keogh

David was originally told he might never perform again.

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RENOWNED classical pianist and West Cork resident David Syme has recalled how he overcame a stroke and taught himself to play again.

David’s remarkable story will be told at a special performance at University College Cork, where he has been the UCC/Ritmüller Classical artist in residence since 2021.

David, a native of Detroit, is now living full-time with his wife Suzanne in a beautiful home near Castletownbere. It is here that he performs his series of popular intimate classical concerts.

It was mid-performance of Chopin’s famous Polonaise at an arts venue in Kerry in June 2017 that David felt his right hand not properly functioning.

‘My right side was completely immobilised,’ he said, ‘I listed to the right and told the audience I didn’t know what was happening.

‘A couple of doctors in the audience rushed to the stage and told me I was having a stroke,’ said David, who told The Southern Star he had to wait an hour for an ambulance to arrive, and spent another hour travelling to a hospital, and three more hours sitting on an office chair before he was seen by a doctor.

Subsequently, David said he was told he should not count on ever having a performing career again.

‘They said I may recover, but I didn’t have a great chance, and that I should resign myself to not playing at a high level again.’

Four days later, David said he was back home at the piano in Beara, trying to play, but found he couldn’t even sit without falling to the right, and even the simplest of nursery tunes were beyond him.

David said it was a phone call, a week later, from the conductor of the Rockford Symphony Orchestra asking him to play Rachmaninoff’s first concerto, the following October, that gave him hope.

At the time, David said he felt bereft of possibilities. ‘I felt like my life as I knew it was either ended, or ending, and that didn’t change until I got the offer to play with the symphony.

‘It gave me a purpose in life, hope for the future, and whatever would happen as a result of my efforts, I would have given it everything.’

The performer said he didn’t tell anyone about his stroke and approached the notoriously difficult piece, which has about 20,000 notes, by trying to play about five notes a day.

‘It is one of the most densely composed pieces in the repertoire,’ said David, ‘and I approached it by propping myself up and picking up my right with my left and placing each finger on each note.’

After about four or five months, David found he could play the piece, but what gave him the confidence to go on occurred in May 2018, when a friend gave him the opportunity to play it publicly with his orchestra.

Having performed it creditably well, David renewed his efforts in time for the October performance.

He said he hasn’t looked back since and was honoured to have been selected as the UCC/Ritmüller Classical artist in residence.

As part of a series of concerts – including three dates in February and three in March – David will be telling his story to the audience at the final performance, which takes place on March 22nd.

‘I will be talking about my stroke and recovery and I am delighted that Prof Denis O’Mahony from CUH will be by my side to elaborate and give people the medical perspective.’

David Syme has, in recent years, been doubly blessed because the Pearl River Piano Group in China approached him when he was ‘in dire straits’ during the Covid lockdown and offered to sponsor him.

The Pearl River Piano Group granted an extended loan of a Ritmüller concert grand piano to UCC, which now resides in the Aula Maxima, and it will be David’s instrument for this latest series of concerts.

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