Monday, March 10, 2014

Stephen Hough: A Polymath in the World of Specialization

I first saw Stephen Hough live in 2013 when I was auditioning in San Francisco. I arrived two days early, but no practice space was available, and the conservatory wouldn't let any prospective students in until the day of the audition. So I decided to walk around and enjoy the sights when I set my eyes on Davies Symphony Hall. A concert was happening in an hour, and Stephen Hough was playing with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado. I decided to go in.

The concert was a rather eclectic showcase of three centuries of classical music. The 21st century started off the concert with "Expo" by Magnus Lindberg (who composes in a style of tonal spectralism, a good example of which may be his Clarinet Concerto), the 19th century began with Stephen Hough playing Piano Concerto No. 2 by Franz Liszt, and the 20th century was represented by Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5.

During the intermission after the performance of Liszt, I went to the lobby where I saw a sizable line of people with Mr. Hough at the end of it. By the time it was my turn to speak with him, I was the only person next to him; this was fortunate, for I was able to talk at length with the maestro. I told him about my auditions, and I described my repertoire list for the auditions; when I mentioned that one of the pieces was a sonata by Nikolai Medtner, his eyes lit up.

"Oh, I played that sonata last year! It's a wonderful piece..."

I was delightfully surprised:  the sonata is rarely performed because of its difficulty in both technique and musicality, and, until then, I did not view Mr. Hough as a musician who championed neglected composers. My view of him was based on the radio broadcasts of his recordings of music of Saint-Saëns for piano and orchestra (the only performances of Hough that the station played was of Saint-Saëns), and I assumed that Saint-Saëns was a composer whose music was performed quite often.

A recent article in the New York Times, however, told me otherwise. Apparently, piano music of Saint-Saëns was not a mainstream of concert repertoire until Mr. Hough championed his music. The article further states that Mr. Hough has traditionally championed music of neglected composers and "of the exotic fringes of the repertory," another apparently well-established fact that eluded me because of my bias that was formed by years of listening to him play nothing but music of one French composer.

The main story of the article deals with a then-upcoming solo recital of Mr. Hough in Carnegie Hall, where he was to play a mixture of standard repertoire and his own music. The act of a performer playing one's own music seems rare in classical concert halls:  composers usually stay among the audience, and performers usually don't compose or don't play their own music. This distinction may have less to do with the talent of each type of musician than with the time constraints that both types feel in an era that values specialization. Professional performers usually want to showcase their musicality and technicality to the audience, and, to achieve that aim, they practice for numerous hours; as a result, they do not have time to actively pursue other aspects of music or of anything else. Professional composers, in turn, may feel obligated to cater to the technical demands that the performers ask for when writing their music in order to earn money from commissions. Since composers are usually trained in schools to actively write more than actively perform (and since they usually need to compose for instruments that they do not have enough experience playing with), their experiential aspect of performance may not be enough for them to play their own works.

Mr. Hough is one of few exceptional performers who, like Marc-André Hamelin, break this barrier between the two seemingly different fields by performing and composing with incredible skill and confidence. His brilliance in all aspects of performing may be the main reason why he is able to succeed, but could others be able to do this? Does a composition have to be a masterpiece in order for a performer to successfully be recognized as a composer? Does a composer have to be a brilliant technician in order for the audience to recognize him or her as a capable musician?

Mr. Hough mentioned in the NY Times article that his activities in the fields of composing, painting, and theologizing compliment each other and make him a better pianist. Perhaps this belief may ring true for many others to come.

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