From pianist-composer Stephen Hough, new music coming out of left field


WILLIAMSTOWN >> The badly planned theater trip had a happy ending.

The two couples went to an evening performance, only to discover that their tickets were for the matinee. But during the course of the night out in London, cellist Steven Isserlis asked pianist Stephen Hough if he would write a sonata for piano, left hand, and cello. It would be for a friend of Isserlis's who had lost use of his right hand.

"Stephen's face took on the sort of thoughtful expression he normally reserves for studying menus of the day or wine lists at restaurants, and I knew that the idea had struck home," Isserlis recalls.

The sonata was finished about a year later. The friend's right hand, meanwhile, recovered and he refused the work, "not wanting to be reminded of difficult times," according to Isserlis. Hough and Isserlis premiered the work in 2013 at the Kronberg Festival in Germany, and will make it a centerpiece of their recital Wednesday at Williams College.

Though there is a small body of other works for piano left hand, most notably Ravel's left-hand concerto, "I would never have thought of writing this piece, but Steven asked for it," Hough recalls.

The other works on the Williams program, which begins at 8 p.m. in Chapin Hall (and will be repeated March 15 in Carnegie Hall), are Schubert's "Arpeggione" Sonata, Grieg's cello-piano sonata and shorter pieces by Dvorak and Suk. Hough subtitles his sonata "Les adieux," a reference to Beethoven's piano sonata of that name, but also to its melancholy character. (A little-known sonata by Dussek also is invoked.)

The English Hough, 54, is better known as a pianist than composer, though he lists more than 30 works written since he took up composition in earnest 10 years ago. Among his many concert venues, which range across major halls in Europe and the United States, is Tannery Pond Concerts in New Lebanon, N.Y. He will return there during the coming summer.

"Arguably the finest, certainly the most intelligent and technically impressive British pianist on the circuit, he has been a force to reckon with for 30 years now," The New York Times wrote. Hough also paints — it's mainly an avocation, he says — and writes. His work includes a book, "The Bible as Prayer"; a recently completed novel, and well-read blog.

In private life, Hough is gay and Roman Catholic — a seemingly contradictory position that leads him to quietly champion gay Christians. He thinks of himself, he says, as catholic with a middle c — not the note in the scale, but a c midway between his religious affiliation (capital C) and his universal embrace of the arts (small c).

In a genial telephone interview at the start of his current American tour, Hough recalled that his friendship with Isserlis goes back to 1988, when they met at the Spoleto festival in Charleston, S.C. They didn't team up as a duo right away, but now perform regularly together.

In fact, Isserlis is the pianist's only current chamber music partner. Hough said he has given up all other chamber activity to concentrate on composing. "It's impossible to do everything. So chamber music and learning big new contemporary works were the two big things I decided had to go."

The pianist said he began composing at the same time he took up piano, at the age of 5 or 6. He had no opportunity to study composition but kept on writing anyway. Only a viola sonata from his early years survives in print.

For about 20 years, he wrote mostly encore pieces and occasional pieces for friends. Performers encouraged him to go on, and one thing led to another. A carol written for the Westminster Cathedral Choir, for example, led to its request for a mass. Other commissions have come from the Berlin Philharmonic players, London's National Gallery and the Louvre in Paris.

Meanwhile, his more than 50 recordings have piled up honors, including a 2008 Gramophone award for the complete Saint-Saƫns piano concertos as best recording of the past 30 years. An album of the Dvorak and Schumann concertos is due for release in April.

Hough's recent compositions include four sonatas, three for solo piano. Each bears a subtitle (the first sonata is titled "Broken Branches"). He loves words. The arts, he says, meet in poetry, which is "words trying to say more than words."

But where does he find time to perform, compose, write books, paint, conduct, administer in the dance world, go for walks and just live?

He spends a lot of time traveling, he says, and rather than watch a movie on a plane or TV in a hotel room, he busies himself in creative pursuits. Being a composer, he says, has been "a wonderful journey. I never thought it was going to happen again."


What: Stephen Hough, piano; Steven Isserlis, cello — Music by Hough, Schubert, Grieg, Dvorak, Suk

Who: Williams College Department of Music Visiting Artists Series

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Williams College, Chapin Hall, Chapin Hall Drive, Williamstown

Admission: free

Information: (413) 597-2127; williamsdeptofmusic@williamsdeptofmusic.pmailus


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