A keen pianist from an early age, Stephen Hough was a finalist in BBC’s 1978 Young Musician of the Year, a competition in which he won the piano section. A student of the Royal Northern College of Music and the Julliard School, Hough is now an Honorary Member of London’s Royal Academy of Music, where he is a visiting professor.
A multi-award winning pianist, Hough has recorded more than 60 CDs and is known for championing the work of lesser known composers. As a composer himself he is similarly prolific, penning over 30 published pieces, which have been performed by some of the world’s leading concert orchestras. Before we welcome Hough back to Southbank Centre in 2020, he spoke to us about his love of classical concerts.
Classical music is an adventure. It’s not really meant to be relaxing or entertaining (although it can be both of those things, and don’t worry if that’s how you feel). But the greatest music is life-changing. It opens up our hearts and speaks to us with a new language. It reveals us to ourselves in surprising and sometimes disturbing ways. Composers wrote their music from deep places – of joy, of sorrow. And as we listen to the music we feel perhaps that it is we who are being listened to.
I love classical concerts as they are, and when I walk out from the wings towards the piano I feel I am sharing in a tradition which is rich with memory and emotion and intimacy. But if this ever feels conventional or stale, then we must look at ways to freshen it up. Concerts might become shorter or longer; start earlier or later; be more or less informal. There’s no rule book. But I think when we are at a concert it should feel different from everyday life. We enter a magical world, a world of spells and enchantment, of theatre and imagination – so I don’t want it to be made normal. Artists are often weird. Come and join us.
The audience is an active part of the procedure. Musicians shouldn’t sit or stand onstage with the audience passively listening. The listeners’ attention (you’re not meant to breathe, you know) is our fuel. ‘Attention’ literally means to wait. To anticipate. When the performer senses that expectation then the concert can take flight.
Take it at your own pace. Don’t expect to love everything. Don’t expect to appreciate everything first time. The classic pieces of the repertoire are famous for a reason. Try coming back to something you don’t get at first. But some pieces (and performances) are boring. Read a little background, perhaps. To know something about the life of Beethoven will make that performance of his Fifth Symphony mean more to you.
Mozart’s 40th Symphony. Beethoven’s Fifth. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade. Tchaikovsky’s Fourth or Fifth Symphonies.