A Renaissance man who knows the score

The Baltimore Sun

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.

Hough not only plays such music, but he also treats it with the utmost respect. In addition, he writes his own arrangements of turn-of-the-last-century ballads that great singers of that day cherished (and many singers of our day don't even know).

"I love the fact that Stephen does so much offbeat and old-fashioned repertoire, and does it with real character and elan," says Davis from his home near the University of Miami, where he has taught piano for more than four decades. "He can do a Brahms concerto very well, and also toss off 19th-century junk pieces. He's a great junk dealer - and I like that in a pianist."

Shedding light on songs

Hough also digs into heavier keyboard music long ignored, including concertos by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Franz Xaver Scharwenka and Emil von Sauer. He also explores material from our own time, including works by John Corigliano, Lowell Liebermann and George Tsontakis. Between his own inquisitiveness and suggestions from friends or record companies, Hough is always expanding his repertoire.

"It's like when you're looking at something on YouTube and you see the band at the side with all the recommendations," the pianist says, "and, before you know it, you've spent hours discovering things you'd never dreamt you'd know about. There are always these points of discovery."

Peering into Hough's own life leads to intriguing points of discovery, too. Like his conversion to Catholicism at 19, despite a potential obstacle to being embraced fully by the church. "Stephen is very Roman Catholic - and gay," says Davis. "At one time, he thought about becoming a priest."

Hough let that thought dissipate. "If I had been in the church, my career would have been different," he says, with a little laugh. "I wouldn't have been promoted to bishop. It's easier to be gay in the arts world. That has always been true, even when [homosexuality] was illegal."

He has often written, in his blog and in articles for various publications, about theological and sexual issues, and he is not shy about advocating acceptance for gays. "The Catholic Church is at its best when 'catholic' is with a small 'c.' A number of priests have contacted me to say, 'Keep writing,' and a couple of nuns have approached me, too," he says.

Last month, Hough was interviewed by, and even performed a Schubert duet with, Britain's music-loving Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor on a BBC radio show. "I presume he knows about me," Hough says. "I think the church will want to rethink its view of homosexuality. For a long time, the view was that it was just straight people misbehaving. There is a lot to be explored about sexuality, just what friendship means, and the whole way of thinking about male and female. It has only been 100 years since the idea of women working became accepted, less than 100 since they were allowed to vote. Things change slowly."

Hough, who is single ("I haven't had a domestic partnership, but it's on my mind"), can be counted on to address such weighty issues now that he has his own blog on the Web site of Britain's Daily Telegraph. In a post last week, for example, he took on the ads by an atheist group now appearing on London buses.

"I never wanted to do a blog," he says. "I was sure no one would want to read it. But I thought I'd give it a go. After getting over the initial nerves, I'm enjoying it. There are a lot of theological things I would like to write about."

Although Hough does discuss musical things, too, especially about his concert travels, he won't be reviewing other musicians. "I don't want to get into that," he says. "But restaurants are fair game. So if I get a bad meal somewhere, watch out."

if you go

Stephen Hough performs with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in an all-Russian program conducted by Vasily Petrenko at 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $20 to $68. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org. The program will also be performed at 8 p.m. Friday at Chesapeake College in Wye Mills. Call 410-827-5867.

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