Friends of Chamber Music preview: Pianist Stephen Hough comes to Portland

Stephen Hough performing at Carnegie Hall in 2010. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito Credit: Hiroyuki Ito

Stephen Hough performing at Carnegie Hall in 2010. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito


Next Monday, Portland’s Friends of Chamber Music presents the British polymath Stephen Hough in concert as the perfect closer to its 75th anniversary season. Already a legendary concert pianist at the energetic age of 51, Hough is also a composer, painter, and writer whose winsome engagement with the arts prompts those listening and reading to become active participants. In 2001 Hough became the first classical performing artist to win a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, which awards $625,000 over five years to creatively intelligent individuals who who use their unique talents to benefit society.

For this Portland concert, Hough has chosen to perform pieces by Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner, Anton Bruckner, Johannes Brahms, and Frédéric Chopin. He shared with ArtsWatch his thoughts on classical music including performance, marketing, repertoire, and composition.

Stephen Hough on performance:

“The minute we have everything worked out is the minute we become dead. I find most unimpressive those young piano students who don’t make any mistakes. There is a polish which is good, a striving to become better and better without becoming content with how you play. But then there is a perfection that’s sanitized and has nothing to do with music and has nothing to do with Beethoven spitting on the floor and never washing.

“I’m not talking about sloppy playing from beginning to end, but rather about moments of falling. It’s like with human life: someone who says nothing but bitter, horrible things drives people away. In contrast, someone who basically has a great heart and is occasionally bitter and horrible invites relationship. Similarly, we can tell when a performance is vulnerable but brilliant in contrast to a performance that simply doesn’t work. As musicians we need to aim for perfection with the awareness that we’re not going to get it. I spend so many hours fussing over the tiniest details of color and texture, but on stage we must let go of all that fussing and just hold on to that bigger picture.”

Rembrandt's Philosopher in Meditation

Rembrandt’s The Philosopher in Meditation (1632)

On classical repertoire:

“I find that Chopin and Brahms, like Rembrandt, are more interesting every time I come back to them. I don’t find that because I’ve seen Rembrandt’s paintings I don’t want to see them again. Similarly, I would be very unhappy if I couldn’t hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for the rest of my life. It’s such a wonderful piece! Why would I not want to hear it again?

“We do need to be adventurous and creative about how we present things. A curator in a museum doesn’t just hang a painting on a wall; perhaps the curator wants to put Caravaggio and Rembrandt side by side, or Rembrandt next to other Dutch painters of the 21st century.

To me, all great art has a perennial feeling; it’s always springtime in the arts, and you wouldn’t say, ‘I like that tree this year, but now that I’ve seen it let’s cut it down.’ No, there are trees that I love, and my whole lifetime isn’t enough to enjoy looking at them. So I think if people are bored with Chopin or Brahms, it’s the way it’s played that’s at fault.”

On marketing classical music:

“People are trying to attract more people to concerts by saying, ‘Don’t be scared of classical music,’ but actually, be very scared of classical music! Classical music does bite and in the most wonderful way. Going to a concert should be challenging. You don’t stand in front of a great painting that cost someone blood and say, ‘Oh, that’s pretty.’ Everything good, like Shakespeare for example, is challenging. Young people don’t want to be told, ‘This is easy.’  Young people want to be told, ‘This is the hardest thing in the world…let’s do it!’ The bigger the challenge, the more they want to rise to it. I would really love to get this challenge back into how we market classical music. People enjoy rising to a challenge.”

On composition:

“I tell students that you don’t have to write a symphony or sonata to begin composing. A great way to start writing your own music is to take a song and make a piano transcription of it.

Composing is an incredible outpouring of myself. I’m interested in writing music that has a relationship to tonality, but I’m not interested in writing straightforward, tonic-dominant, classical-style music. My influences are Janacek, Poulenc, Britten, and what interests me in composing is capturing some emotional core. I want music to go deep inside to what makes human beings human beings.

In almost all the music I’ve written, I’ve experienced tears while writing it. Not necessarily sentimental tears or even tears of sadness, but also tears of joy as I put something of myself on paper. These heightened emotions interest me, and I believe that without tonality it’s very, very hard if not impossible to explore certain emotions. However distant you are from a key, something is always pulling you back like a home we are longing for.”

Green Passage

Green Passage, by Stephen Hough

Stephen Hough performs at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall on April 7 at 7:30 pm, a few days before his appearance on the public radio program A Prairie Home Companion. Tickets can be purchased online. For more information call 503-224-9842.

 Jana Hanchett is a teacher, writer, and pianist living in Portland.

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