March 11, 2014

Stephen Hough is an artist with agile fingers, agile brain

Pianist plays Schumann’s concerto with Charlotte Symphony March 14, 15.

I had a conference call last week with a Grammy-nominated classical pianist, a composer, a poet, an abstract painter, a celebrated British blogger and the devout Catholic author of “The Bible as Prayer.”

But only Stephen Hough was on the other end, taking a break from rehearsals of Rachmaninov’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” with the Minnesota Orchestra. Wait – I forgot to mention Commander of the Order of the British Empire, as of January. But what is that, exactly?

“It’s an honor the queen gives out twice a year to a certain number of people,” he says. “Which is strange, as the British empire doesn’t exist any more. I’m not Sir Stephen Hough; that’s the grade above mine. It’s really like getting a gold star in school. It just means ‘You’ve traveled around for years, doing nice things for your country.’ ”

Steven Andrew Gill Hough (it rhymes with “rough”) has traveled around, doing nice things indeed for music, for more than 30 years. His journeys bring him to Charlotte Friday for the fifth time, playing a piece he has never recorded among 50-plus CDs: Robert Schumann’s piano concerto.

He has recorded and played Schumann’s solo work for decades. So why the delay?

“Well, I will record it next year, along with Dvorak’s only piano concerto,” he says. “You know, the years pass, things get asked for. ... At first, Hyperion (for which he records) only recorded music that hadn’t been played by other people, so I was doing pieces like Scharwenka’s Fourth Piano Concerto. (He played that one with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in 2000.)

“But Schumann was one of the first concertos I heard as a kid, and I very much enjoy playing it. It’s not a virtuoso piece; it’s all about a lyrical, poetic voice. I played it, interestingly enough, at Buckingham Palace for a concert in memory of Princess Diana’s grandmother. Diana was alive, and there were hundreds of people in the ballroom – a great day.”

Music, art and writing

At 52, Hough can look back upon a career as a musical revivalist (Hummel and Sauer), an interpreter of core repertoire (Brahms and Rachmaninov), a defender of neglected piano music from his native land (Britten and Rawsthorne) and a man who can mainstream the marginal: Readers of Gramophone voted his 2001 recording of the Saint-Seans concertos the best classical disc of the previous 30 years.

His exhibitions of art and published writings make him a literal polymath. (To explore his non-musical side, visit stephenhough.com or his blog for The Telegraph at blogs.telegraph.co.uk.) He’s a musical polymath, too. He likes virtually all classical music, except ...

“I recognize that Bach was the greatest composer who ever lived. He speaks to people in the most profound ways, but he has never spoken to me. That’s changing a little bit now, and I’m starting to work on some Bach. The thing is, there’s a sanity to it, a feeling that things are always resolved. Everything is beautifully ordered, like a great cathedral.

“What I love about Debussy and Janacek is that things are left unsaid, unfinished. There’s chaos. When I wrote my second piano sonata, I was influenced by pop music; I have a godson who’s a DJ, and he played me stuff they hear in clubs. Elements in my piece take up that random, chaotic feeling.”

He must like that feeling, because he happily juggles so many creative elements in his own life.

“One thing feeds the other,” he says. “It’s a very restrictive world if I only sit and play. I have suppressed the side of me that tries to plan everything, and I act now more out of compulsion.

“But there’s a sort of torture in having an idea for a piece and not having time to write it; I have all sorts of sketches for the third piano sonata, which will premiere in 2015, and there’s no chance to do it. I’m almost scared to have good ideas, because I’ll lie awake at night, thinking of the string quartet I want to do. I tend to compose away from the piano, at the gym or walking through an airport.”

He’s becoming known (especially in Britain) as an author and artist. “The Bible as Prayer” offers excerpts to lead a busy person into daily spiritual thought, and London’s Broadbent Gallery presented a solo exhibition of 15 acrylics last fall. The calm of his written meditations and the wild swirl of his paintings both represent his nature.

“Humanity develops through conflict, through differences coming together and making a concord out of a discord,” he says. “Music comes from that, and life does, too.”

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