Stephen Hough

Pianist Aims to Create Complete Concert Experience

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Stephen Hough, who performs tonight at Jack Singer Hall, Calgary, selects music, he assembles his repertoire with as much attention to the audience experience as a French chef running a four-star restaurant.

It involves a combination of choosing a variety pieces of varying size and piano perspective.

“The first half (of the performance) begins with very, very small pieces, some of them lasting only a matter of seconds,” he says. Monday’s program, for example, includes compositions by Stroenberg, Strauss and Wagner. “Then (in the second half), the Liszt sonata (Sonata in B minor S. 178) is one of the biggest pieces in the repertoire.

“It’s like a big mountain,” he adds, “so that progression from small to large is something that I was interested in exploring.”

Hough — who, in addition to being a world-class pianist for the past three decades, also writes a culture blog for The Telegraph in Britain, poetry, paints and once gave up music to pursue a career as a Catholic priest — bites right into the chef metaphor with gusto.

“It’s a bit like planning a meal,” he says. “This is starting with very small courses and ending with a big one.

“You want to make sure there’s enough interesting quirks, and corners, and end up having a good evening.”

It doesn’t hurt the concert experience, either, that the audience tonight will consist of several hundred people, all of whom sit onstage at the Jack Singer Hall, giving Hough’s recital the feeling of unfolding in the most intimate, acoustically-glorious living room in the land.

It’s all a part of Honen’s attempt to reinvent the piano recital for the 21st century, said Honens President and artistic director Stephen McHolm in a 2013 interview with the Herald.

“There’s no sense in us repeating what everyone else is doing because we’re getting more and more good recital series in town,” he said.

“So for us to keep fresh and really think about making this music interesting and approachable to people, we want it to be as much a visual experience (as an audio one).

“We want you to be present at those concerts,” he said, “not just a passive audience member.”

Hough is also known for choosing repertoire by some little-known composers, although for Calgary, he’s designed a program in a different manner, distinguishing between what he describes as pianistic and non-pianistic composers.

“A composer that writes in a pianistic way,” he says, “is one who writes knowing the instrument, from inside out, having played it.

“Obviously, every instrument, you can know what they can do as far as the number of notes there,” he says, “but really to write well for the harp, you have to put your arms around the harp, and know what it feels like to play certain chords and certain progressions.

“The point with this program,” he says, “was that the first half is mainly pieces by people who didn’t play the piano, and the second half is by someone who played the piano supremely well.”

Not that Wagner, or Strauss or Stroenberg — the opening acts, as it were — are exactly slouches when it comes to composing music.

“They’re all great composers,” Hough says. “They’re professional. They know what they’re doing.

“The difference,” he adds, “is with someone like Liszt.

“He’s someone who actually invented what it’s like to be a pianist,” he says, “so it’s a bit like flying with someone who invented the Boeing aircraft, versus someone who learned how to fly it: you’re up in the air with both of them, but the kind of expertise when you’re the absolute expert at something that is just a little bit different and a little more thrilling.”

Honens presents Stephen Hough, March 31 at Jack Singer Hall.


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