Stephen Hough January 26th, 2018

On Tuesday evening I attended Stephen Hough’s concert at Music Toronto, in the intimate Jane Mallett Theatre in Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre. My teacher, Peter Mose, told me Mozart’s Adagio in B minor was on the program, which is sometimes played as a companion piece to the Little Gigue, which I in turn discovered while reading Stuart Isacoff’s book A Natural History of the Piano after hearing him speak at the Cliburn Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas last year, and I’ve been working on this piece for about six months. The Little Gigue is tricky and irresistible, with rhythms and harmonies that are as challenging to the ear and brain as to the fingers. The Adagio is (obviously) its polar opposite, and just does not move me (though I’m sure that’s more my failing than Mozart’s). Still, I was interested to see Hough perform.

As it turned out, Peter was mistaken, and Hough didn’t play any Mozart. He did play several pieces by Debussy, including the much-loved Clair de Lune; Schumann’s trippy but gorgeous Fantasy in C; and Beethoven’s fiery Appassionata. I’ve been playing fragments of the slow second movement of this sonata after every tuning for ten years without really knowing the full piece!

Having only attended Music Toronto once before, I suddenly realized that this is where serious chamber music lovers in Toronto go to hear their favourite performers. The house was packed, and highly enthusiastic and appreciative. I went alone, hoping (but not expecting) to see someone I knew. The ladies’ room before the performance was like a party, with several ladies greeting each other in French. I felt envious. But once I was in my seat in the balcony I was joined across the aisle by my friend Liz, an accomplished teacher, jazz player and choir accompanist, and then by Ted, also a piano teacher and fellow student of Peter’s (and who also knows Liz), and then, there was Peter, with his companion Simone, who had told me he would likely not be there. Suddenly I felt very much like a part of the musical life of Toronto.

Something I noticed as soon as Hough started playing is that he is not one of those pianists who emotes much at the keyboard. The last time I attended a piano performance was at the Cliburn competition in June, with young performers who may generally be said to show quite a lot of emotion at the keyboard! There is nothing wrong with this, but it can be distracting. And there was nothing to distract from Hough’s deft treatment of this very diverse repertoire. There’s something to be said for maturity. A younger player might also have been more visibly thrown off by the Steinway, whose unisons started going out of tune almost immediately, despite Hough’s measured approach (eliciting a humorous comment from him just before the encore).

It turns out that Hough is a Renaissance Man. Besides being one of the most sought-after pianists and recording artists in the world, he is also a composer, painter, and writer, with a first novel entitled The Final Retreat coming out shortly. I see from his bio that he recently recorded the Grieg Lyric Pieces. Be still my heart! Excuse me, I must go and listen now.

 

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