ONE summer's afternoon in 1978, a year before she won the prestigious prize at the Leeds piano competition that was to launch her solo career, Kathryn Stott unlocked the door of her London flat. She had been away on holiday, and expected the place to be empty. 'To my surprise, I saw a Chinese man in the middle of my sitting room dressed in his underpants and playing the cello,' she recalled. 'And there was a woman, walking around in her dressing gown.' 'They both looked as surprised as I was,' Stott said. The man was Yoyo Ma, the woman was his young wife, and the unexpected encounter was caused by Ma's agent, who had set him up in the flat (which Stott rented from the agent) while he was performing in London, without bothering to tell any of the parties that they would have to share 'Fortunately we all had a good sense of humour.' The meeting was the beginning of a lasting friendship, and a professional relationship that has already brought Stott twice to Hong Kong, and many times to other parts of the world, to play recitals with Ma - while also developing her own successful career as an artist on her own. She said she had learned a great deal about performance from Yoyo Ma: 'I used to be more timid . . . but Yoyo is very confident, and he can transfer his energies into everything around him. 'He is such a good communicator, and I haven't found anyone else with such a good ear for what is going on with the piano part.' While at her home in the remote Yorkshire countryside, Stott practises for about five hours a day, before spending the late afternoons going riding with her 10-year-old daughter (who has a musical ear, but who hasn't taken up the piano with dedicated enthusiasm, she said). 'I try and spend as much of the summer holidays with her as I can; it is hard to juggle a family and a career [that involves so much travel],' she said, adding that she tried to limit the number of concerts to about 70 a year. As well as her normal practice and touring schedule over the past few months, Stott has recently branched out into concert series promotion - an unusual step for a soloist, and a brave step for anyone, given the difficulty of getting business sponsorship for the arts in the recessed UK. 'I had the idea while I was in my kitchen one day, and I thought that this date [the 150th anniversary of the French composer Gabriel Faure's birth, in 1845] was coming up, and how good it would be to hear some of his less-known work. 'Everyone knows the Requiem, but there are other pieces that we don't hear very often. 'I thought about it and realised that if I didn't do it then no one would, so I sat down and sketched out a plan for a series.' So in May, for two Gallic weeks, concert-goers in Manchester will be able to hear some of the world's top performers playing works by French composers - Ravel, Saint-Saens, Debussy, Satie and of course Faure himself - in 12 separate concerts. The series will be opened by two concerts by Yoyo Ma and Stott, with the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier, and will then include performances by the Nash Ensemble, the Labeque Sisters (who performed in Macau last year) and many other musicians. It has not just been the difficulty of finding sponsors ('I wrote hundreds of letters, and got hundreds of 'no's' '), pushing for advertisers, and arranging the myriad tiny details that make up a concert series. But some performers (she named no names) have proved demanding, and have stipulated a series of strict, detailed requests down to the last biscuit in the dressing room. 'It is good for me, as a soloist, to see the other side of things for once. When you go on a tour, and the agent is pressing you for this and that biography or programme list months in advance, it all seems so unnecessarily irritating. 'But now I can understand what it is all about.' Stott admitted that this is not likely to be a big money earner, and indeed she could end up losing. 'There is not very much money in concerts in the UK now.' She emphasised she was not tempted by the glittery world of promotion. 'Oh no, I think I'll go back to giving concerts; they're less stressful.' The piece that she will perform tomorrow and Saturday - Rachmaninov's Variations on a Theme of Paganini - is one of her favourites. 'This is a most tremendously energetic work. Being a set of variations you have to be particularly sharp. The mood changes quickly.' Katheryn Stott, with The Hong Kong Philharmonic, tomorrow and Saturday, Cultural Centre Concert Hall, 8pm. Tickets, $55-$210, from Urbtix.