A Renaissance man who knows the score

British pianist, composer, author and painter Stephen Hough, who performs this week with the BSO, delves into Tchaikovsky's mind

January 25, 2009|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,tim.smith@baltsun.com

He writes verse, and one of his poems won an international poetry competition. He paints, and one of his works was displayed on the Web site of a major British newspaper. He blogs for another major British newspaper. He composes music that gets performed in high-profile places. He's the author of a book on prayer.

Oh yes, and Stephen Hough also plays the piano. Brilliantly, incisively, compellingly.

The British keyboard artist and 21st-century Renaissance man, a recipient of a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called "genius grant") in 2001, will be with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this week, playing Tchaikovsky's Concerto No. 1.

"I had the advantage of not learning the concerto as a student," Hough says by phone from London. "I wasn't interested in playing it, and I didn't even look at it until six years ago when I taught a master class on it. Suddenly, I started to think about the piece more."

The pianist also was offered an opportunity to record the concerto and Tchaikovsky's other piano/orchestra works for the Hyperion label. The pianist is in the process of finishing up that set. If it turns out anything like his recording of the complete Rachmaninoff concertos, it will quickly set a new standard in a crowded field.

"I have a very soft spot for Tchaikovsky," says Hough, 47. "He wasn't a great pianist, but he certainly knew how to structure emotional content. And for all of the dangerously intense emotion, there is also that gentleness, the longing for childhood."

Thoughtful take

Just as the pianist did with the Rachmaninoff concertos - performances prized for their highly expressive, yet never indulgent, quality - Hough has thought through every detail of Tchaikovsky's ubiquitous First. One example: "The second movement is often done very slowly," the pianist says. "But I wanted to capture the feeling of a little girl opening her Christmas presents on Christmas morning."

As the distinguished septuagenarian American pianist and pedagogue Ivan Davis notes, "There's not much you can do to whip an old war horse into shape so it's a revelation." But Hough is the kind of musician who can do just that.

"I admire him a lot," says Davis. "He's such an interesting pianist."

Part of what makes Hough interesting may lie in the fact that he's curious about all aspects of the musical process.

"I particularly enjoy writing music," he says. "I think it can help me enter closer into the mind of a composer [whose music] I'm working on. It can help you understand why a particular dynamic marking is where it is. When you go back to [the other composer's work], you might look at the score differently."

Hough, who last year received Northwestern University's $50,000 Jean Gimble Lane Prize (for pianists "who have achieved the highest levels of ... international recognition"), began composing right after he started piano lessons at 5. He soon tackled literary composition. "I've always enjoyed writing words," he says. "That was my favorite subject in school."

Educated in his native country at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and at the Juilliard School in New York, the pianist seems to have a natural affinity for various fields.

"I think a lot of that has to do with confidence and a willingness to try things," Hough says. "I do a little painting for my own amusement. Sometimes when I practice piano, I feel the need to take a break, and I might take a walk or paint. Obviously, the piano pays the mortgage. The piano is the thing I do and the thing I love doing. It is a constant joy and a constant discovery."

Discovering the piano

It was a pianistic discovery at a tender age that may have shaped Hough's artistry.

"There was no classical music in the house when I was a child," he says. "But when I started playing the piano, my parents started buying classical records. One of the earliest I remember was 'Keyboard Giants of the Past.' It was very precious to me."

The imposing players on the record included names known primarily today only to connoisseurs, such as Ignaz Paderewski, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Josef Lh?vinne and Josef Hofmann.

"I was disappointed when I heard contemporary pianists," Hough says. "I wanted them to sound like those keyboard giants. People like Hofmann, Lh?vinne and Rachmaninoff certainly had personality. All were very interested in sound, nuance and pedaling, which perhaps pianists today don't spend much time thinking about."

Contemporary keyboard musicians are not likely to follow some of the stylistic traits those long-ago folks displayed, especially the great rhythmic freedom, and few explore the lighter repertoire that many of those earlier pianists played, right alongside their Beethoven and Brahms, the salon pieces or glittery show-off items by the likes of Moszkowski, Chaminade and Tausig.

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