Stephen Hough: Building A More Perfect Room With Beethoven

Feb 20, 2015

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It might be hard to imagine that one of the greatest living pianists began his life without much music in his home. But Stephen Hough began exactly that way—he became enamored of the piano when he saw one at an aunt’s house and realized it would allow him to add music to the nursery rhymes he loved singing. Before long, he begged his parents to buy him one and pay for lessons. As it turned out, piano transformed not only his life but his family’s as well.

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“My father amassed an absolutely encyclopedic knowledge of music," Hough says. "He knew everything from Monteverdi to Stockhausen and everything in between. Music was an absolutely essential part of his life which was wonderful because not only did I discover music, which has since become my life, but he did too.”

That eclecticism evident in his father’s tastes has become central to Hough’s career as well. With over 50 recordings to his credit, he has covered a wide range of composers and penned many of his own compositions. Central to his performance of any work, understanding the psychology of the composer much the way an actor would approach becoming a character for the stage.

“You have to be that person in that play for the audience," he says. "If they think for a minute that you’re an actor playing a role the magic is gone.”

For this week’s performances with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, Hough undertakes two Beethoven compositions—Piano Concertos No.1 and No.2. Hough steps into the recording studio next month to make a Beethoven-centered album.

“The psychology of Beethoven is fascinating," he says. "The obsessiveness of him, the exultation of him. He’s always reaching beyond himself and beyond the music and this, I think, is one of the reasons why he’s a greater composer than say Saint-Saëns—whom I also like a lot and love playing his music. But they’re striving for different things. Someone is living a room this size; someone else wants to live in Versailles. The walls are bigger, and the ceilings are higher in Beethoven. You have to be part of that. You can’t enter the world of Beethoven thinking like a Saint-Saëns.”

Credit Arleigh Aldrich

Hough—who is a prolific writer, composer and even poet—spends most of his time away from home performing for audiences around the world and living inside the minds of the many great composers whose work he plays.

“Some people will be bored stiff and never want to go to another classical concert again," Hough says. "Fine, that’s their choice, and I’m happy about that. But other people will be touched, and that’s wonderful. You just scatter the seed around and you don’t know what will happen.”

Stephen Hough performs on Saturday and Sunday with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra.