Stephen Hough's first gift came in the form of a talent for playing the piano. But for guiding what he has done with that, he gives credit to a second gift - the kind that comes in wrapping paper.
"When I was starting to learn the piano - when I was around 6 or 7 - my parents bought an LP called 'Keyboard Giants of the Past,'" he says. It held samples of Sergei Rachmaninoff and other pianists of the early 1900s, or as Hough describes them: "people who played the instrument supremely well ... people who gloried in the craft, not just of fast notes, but of beautiful sound."
Hough, who solos with the Charlotte Symphony on Friday and Saturday, says those artists "have become my teachers, in a sense."
He must have learned well. Many other pianists who were launched by contest victories in the 1980s have faded from the scene. But Hough - winner of the Naumburg Competition, which isn't even one of the splashiest - is still going strong.
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This week, Hough (pronounced "huff") will play Edvard Grieg's ever-popular Piano Concerto in Charlotte. Last week, he soloed with the St. Louis Symphony. Before that was Scotland. March included Texas, England, France and Philadelphia, in that order.
You get the idea. And for the past couple of years, Hough has had a second outlet: blogging for England's The Telegraph newspaper. (To find him, go to telegraph.co.uk and click on "Blogs.")
"I've always enjoyed writing," Hough says. "It was my favorite subject at school - more than music, really."
His topics in recent posts include seeing U.S. tornado devastation from the air; the likeness he notices between piano contests and an election proposal in his native England; and excessiveness in life and work. The last of those, posted Good Friday, ends with a nod to Easter and springtime:
"Regardless of our religious faith or lack of it, with bud and blossom all around us it is as good a time as any to celebrate rebirth. There is no 'moderation' about nature's wild beauty. And even if we've had enough of living I don't think we can ever have enough of life itself. That is a full cup we can safely drink to excess."
Hough doesn't say so, but those long-ago pianists who were his touchstone approached music the same way. The example they set has been a stern taskmaster.
"If you have something in your ear that you want to create," Hough says, "it takes a tremendous amount of time. In my early 20s ... sometimes I was working until 2 in the morning, and would leave the piano feeling absolutely ill - sometimes just working on one passage trying to get the right transparency."
Even now, "the craft of trying to go toward those tiny details is what interests me. The piano is all about that. You're presented with a percussive instrument that is a dead box, in a way. ... We have to create that magic through a kind of sleight of hand."
Hough made his name in part by reviving neglected piano works that his musical ancestors championed. Visiting Charlotte in the 1990s, he played showpieces by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, a pupil of Mozart's, and Xaver Scharwenka, a virtuoso of a century ago. He also plays modern-day works - such as music by Oscar winner John Corigliano.
A place to work
The range may have helped attract the attention of the MacArthur Foundation, which picked Hough in 2001 for one of its $500,000 awards.
Hough found something eminently practical to do with the money. He set himself up with a permanent place to practice and compose.
"Living in big cities like London and New York," he says, "there's always a problem with neighbors. I bought an apartment (in London) and soundproofed it. That's actually where I do a lot of work.... It's a sort of help that will go on to the end of my career."