Chief cultural blogger for The Telegraph of London. Prodigious recorder of well over 50 albums. MacArthur genius. Theologian. Poet. Queer activist. Composer. The guy wears a lot of [size 60] hats, but first and foremost: Stephen Hough plays piano and will forever and ever reign at the high altar of my personal pianoforte pantheon. [sigh] Our beloved Oregon Symphony is thankfully hosting the indefatigable pianist for a program featuring Liszt’s sometimes romantic/sometimes explosive Piano Concerto #2. In honor of his return visit to the City of Roses, here is Mr. Hough tackling 10 of my sometimes inane questions:
First things first: Why is the piano so awesome?
It’s an orchestra at the hands of one player. It can whisper, roar, and everything in between.
This Saturday and Monday, you’re on tap to play the Second Piano Concerto of Franz Liszt ~ How would you describe this amazing work?
Liszt’s 2nd is really like a wonderful, long romantic cadenza from start to finish – a great lyrical, dramatic improvisation. It’s brilliantly constructed because it’s in one movement but in many sections, and most of the material comes from a few small cells which Liszt develops in subtle, skillful ways. It’s a story but I don’t think you need to know the plot. Plenty of excitement too…
So stoked! I’m guessing some of the excitement comes in the form of piano trills (which, to us mere mortals, seem impossibly difficult). What’s your advice for mastering this superhuman skill?
The longer the trill the more important it is to use the wrist rather than the fingers. Short, decorative trills can be shaken with fingers, but really we need to have a flexible wrist for evenness and strength. *Click here for blog posts I wrote on the subject.
Sweet! Speaking of your kick-ass blog, I just read about your recent stop into San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. In all your globetrotting, what’s the most beautiful church you’ve visited?
Very hard to say. In London, I love the Jesuit church at Farm Street – but I also love the harsh brilliance of Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral.
Okay… Hypothetical Alert! If you could invite a composer or two over for dinner, who would you choose?
Well, we’d have to go out because I never cook, even for myself! I think Poulenc would have been great fun. Liszt I would have been fascinated to meet. But I’m not sure they would have worked so well together. Maybe I would have to plan a number of tête-à-têtes with individual composers.
What, no invite for centennial boy Benjamin Britten?
He wouldn’t be one of the dinner guests, I fear. I know people who knew him and he was tricky, moody — and not a generous colleague. I hope to get the chance to hear more of his music this year. I love it and there are operas I’ve not seen. I’m keeping my eye open!
I was happy to have discovered you share your November 22nd birthday with Mr. Britten ~ Do you feel any special cosmic connection with this composer?
Actually I do. He’s an influence on my own compositions in some ways, in particular the way he uses and distorts tonality to invoke poignant moods. When I was in my first year at high school we sang his Missa Brevis and it was both my introduction to the Latin text of the Mass as well as its Gloria being my first piece performed in 7/8 time. I think he was also the first person whom I was told was ‘homosexual’.
Seems like your House of Commons is celebrating #Britten100 by approving same-gender marriage. Any words of encouragement for us queers in America?
You’ve never had it so good in history… and let’s make good relationships of love and commitment. This is the best argument for equality.
Word. Stephen, you’ve already got 50+ albums under your proverbial belt. What differences do you detect in your playing when it’s for a recording, instead of a live audience?
With a recording you tend to think the long term – that this is going to be around for a long time. You want your interpretation to cover all the bases in a way, to be a summation of everything you’ve thought about the piece. In a concert part of the fun is highlighting one side of a work, one character in the play.
Alright, last question already: Have you discovered a favourite piano on this planet of ours?
I really don’t have a favourite. I avoid finding the perfect piano which then I can’t play again or play in public. Also pianos change all the time One slight voicing from a different tuner and the instrument is like new. And humidity from month to month alters the sound, the feel. It’s not at all like a stringed-instrument where there’s a soul lasting over the centuries. Nevertheless very occasionally there’s a piano which seems to be unusually special. One of the pianos Horowitz played which a friend of mine owned had that quality. It just seemed to sing, to soar.
Brilliant! Mr. Hough, thanks so much for everything you do. And gentle reader, if you happen to be in Portland this Saturday or Monday evening, do yourself a favor and experience this amazing pianist singing and soaring live with the equally amazing Oregon Symphony!