Chamberfest: Stephen Hough is the renaissance man of the keyboard

Stephen Hough. Photo: Sim Canetty Clarke.

The last time Stephen Hough, widely considered one of the greatest pianists of his generation (or any generation for that matter) was in Ottawa it was in mid-winter.

“It was so cold I didn’t even want to look around. I just went from the hotel to (Southam) Hall,” he said over a phone line from Lille, France where he was about to perform.

No chance of that this time. It will be warmer and the hall will be Dominion Chalmers United Church where he will play, as part of Chamberfest 2017, several pieces by Debussy, some Schumann and Beethoven.

Hough is a thoughtful performer. His programmes are purposeful; this one is a study in contrast.

“At the end of the 19th century in Europe, there is a divide between France and Germany in the visual arts, literature and in music (and politics too).

“I thought it was interesting to put these composers together. Debussy is as quintessentially French as he can be. And certainly Beethoven is as German.

“But you start with a prejudice that the French is all impressionism and improvisation while the German is architecture, design and structure. But what I love is way that turns on its head. Debussy is actually incredibly well-structured and put together. It is almost neurotic in the way he notates his scores with a marking on every note. Even though it sounds like an improvisation, it sounds like perfume, it’s a very intellectual conceit.

“Then Beethoven and Schumann, these pieces are completely crazy. The Beethoven is almost unhinged in its passion and intensity. And Schumann always is taking us into this fairy tale world of high imagination I thought it was interesting they contrast each other.

“I love making connections like that. I like to put a program together with musical ideas in mind but it thrills me when there are other things involved,” he said noting another connection.

“Three pieces on the program are to do with the moon. I do like those sort of connections and the way things tie together. A recital is theatre really and I think we can lose this if we say, ‘Why don’t we just wear jeans and chat with the audience?’ There is a place for that, but there is also a place for the concert as a piece of theatre.”

The evening is then like a great meal, Hough says, with flavours “juxtaposed with each other in a way that throws a different light on the other” pieces.

Hough believes it is important to show there is thought in performance. It is, he believes, important to stimulate the mind. A programme should work on every level.

“I think a piece of music is a journey from the first sounds you create until the end. It should feel like you have been on a journey.

“I like to feel, by the end of a concert, the audience has been on a voyage with me. It’s almost like going on a cruise … not that I’ve been on a cruise because I hate ships. But people, I’m told, form very close friendships on cruises. That’s very much like a recital. You share a very intimate space in the concert hall with music that is igniting all this passion and all these nostalgic thoughts.

“I think there is something moving and touching about that human interaction.”

Hough is a firm believer that a classical music concert is not an event solely for an elite.

“First of all the composers we are dealing with, many were from modest backgrounds. Most of them remained liberal in the sense that they never felt they were better than anyone. The idea is ludicrous, laughable that one has to put on a black bow tie to come and listen to this great music.

“What I can’t stand is the idea that because you come from money or bloodline that gives you an unfair advantage. I really dislike that very much. … I have no interest in traditions for their own sake really.

“I’m not thrilled if someone says this person’s aunt is the countess so and so. I just want to know if that person is a good and interesting person and I couldn’t care less if their father worked in a supermarket. These are human things that we are always fighting against. Equality and tolerance it has to be relearned in every generation. It is not there forever. We could lose it.”

That doesn’t mean Hough believes classical music should be an easy thing to take on board.

“I do think it is elite in terms of talent and expertise and difficulty. That is very important. I don’t want to shy away from that. I think important things in life are often difficult. If you are going to climb a great mountain you are going to have to do some training. You aren’t going to look at it and just start. Things that are worth doing are worth an effort.

“Everybody should be made to feel welcome at a concert. We can make it more attractive to people by saying ‘Come along but this is isn’t going to be easy always. This music requires concentration. It isn’t for everybody. That doesn’t mean that we are better than other people it’s just because it’s a different taste.

“People train to run a marathon, why not train to attend a classical concert?

“For young people, it’s no good saying classical music is no real effort. Instead let’s say to young people ‘This is tough. Maybe you can’t understand it. Maybe you haven’t got the concentration level’. That might make young people … take up the challenge.

“We have missed the boat on this,” Hough believes. “We see audiences falling and so we think we must make it easier. We must play part of a piece or play things that are popular or play a movie at the same time. Or have people tweeting as listening to concert. It’s too easy.”

In an aside, Hough is active on social media, commenting on things that interest him, but he is also cautious about using Twitter  =via his account @houghhough.

“I’m very careful what I do and don’t say. I never reveal where I am staying and I don’t talk about heavy politics.”

Another thing about performing for a classical music audience is very appealing to Hough.

“I’m going to be playing to people from every background.  I love that for two hours we can let all our differences drop and enjoy this music together. We are all, in the end, looking for same things in life: fulfillment, a rich life and looking to make people’s lives around us rich. Most people want to bring happiness.

“We have a wonderful diverse and open world and that delights me. I love being around Juilliard (where he teaches) where  everyone is from a different background and to me that’s just thrilling.”

One of Hough’s students is from China.

“No one understands western music more profoundly or has more intelligent grasp on it than him. He was joy to work with.”

Hough believes Asia will be where classical music will be preserved.

“I am happy about that. I want everybody to enjoy classical music. This doesn’t make me feel that something is being taken away. It belongs to all of us.”

One quickly discovers that Hough is a thoughtful, curious person. He is, by turns painting or writing along with his musical career. He is even a honorary Bencher at the Middle Temple in London. And his journey led him to convert to Catholicism.

He still goes to mass on Sundays. But, “the way I interact with Catholicism today is extremely different from the way I did when I was first converted. I’m certainly not satisfied with Catholicism alone.

“I think what is interesting is how people fight against it. In a sense that gives a greater depth to it. Most important Catholic thinkers have been those who allow others thoughts to push against their own rigidities. At end you can find something that is very exciting.

“I go to a city and I’m not particularly needing to see everything in that city. I’m not a tourist in that way. On my own I’m more interested in the ideas of the mind. I can quite happy in my hotel room with a book and its thoughts.”

That led to a question about what he was reading at the time of this interview.

“I’m reading a wonderful book called Reformations: The Early Modern World 1450 to 1650 (Yale University Press) by Carlos Eire, a professor at Yale. It’s wonderful book. I’ll be reading it tonight over dinner as I do when I am dining alone.”

Stephen Hough
When: Sunday July 23 at 7 p.m.
Where: Dominion Chalmers United Church

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.