The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music interview: Pianist Stephen Hough discusses blogging, new recordings and how to atttract young people to classical music. Part 2 of 2. | February 23, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

British pianist Stephen Hough (below) is something of a renaissance man.

At 48, he performs around the globe and records on the piano in solo, chamber and concerto music. He composes music. He writes and blogs prolifically. He paints and writes poetry, and has won awards for both. He champions rarely performed composers and works. He takes his own photos for his blog, and, as an openly gay man who converted to Catholicism when he was 19, he writes about theology and social issues.

A graduate of the Juilliard School in New York City, he won the Naumberg Competition in 1983 and in 2001 received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. He has dozens of recordings currently in print and has won many awards for them, including the complete piano concertos of Rachmaninoff and Saint-Saens.

Hough will be in Madison this weekend (Feb. 26-28) to give three performances of the Tchaikovsky’s popular and famous Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor (the same one Van Cliburn was famous for) with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under returning guest conductor Anu Tali of Estonia.

Performances are in Overture Hall on Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Also on the program are Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1 and the Madison premiere of the work “Dawn” by Estonian composer Heino Eller (1887-1970).

Tickets are $15-$75. For information or reservations, visit or call The Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141.

Here are links to his own website, his blog, his Wikipedia entry and tickets, program notes and other things for the MSO concerts:

Hough recently agreed to an e-mail interview with the blog “The Well-Tempered Ear.” Yesterday, he discussed the Gay Tchaikovsky and the “warhorse” PIano Concerto No. 1 as well as the reasons for Tchaikovsky’s popularity.

Today, he discusses his blogging, his recordings, his controversial remarks about not connecting with the music of J.S. Bach and his idea about how to attract young audiences to classical music.

Despite your hectic touring and recording schedule, you are a prolific blogger who posts about every other day. Why do you blog? What do you most enjoy or find rewarding about blogging? How many hits do you get in a day? How does blogging affect your performing career and vice-versa?

I began blogging because I was asked to!  I don’t think I would have started off my own bat, but having the opportunity to write a regular column for one the great British newspapers was very tempting.

Although when I started I thought I’d not get beyond a dozen articles, I’ve since seen it as a wonderful way to put down thoughts that before I used to scribble on bits of paper and throw in a drawer.

Not only can I write (which I’ve always loved to do) but I can interact closely with my audience, but without losing my privacy.  My blog gets between 8,000 and 16,000 hits a week, and I’ve done close to 200 posts over the past year.  My only stipulations when I started were that I would not be a critic and comment on living artists, and that I would write about things other than music.

2010 is a Chopin and Schumann Year. How will you be marking it in concert and in recordings? What is on your Chopin recital CD and when is it due for release? Is a Schumann CD is the works?

I have a Chopin CD coming out., also in April this year.  It’s called “Late Masterpieces” and has on it the B minor Sonata, Barcarolle, Berceuse, Polonaise Fantaisie, the two op. 62 Nocturnes and some mazurkas.

Here is a sample of Hough playing Chopin — the gorgeous slow movement from the Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Sydney Symphony under conductor Edo de Waart — on YouTube:

There is no Schumann CD planned at the moment, although I adore his music too.

You recently wrote in your blog that you don’t really like the music of J.S. Bach as much as you should or others might expect. Why not? What has been the reaction from readers and other musicians to your admission?

Ah, but that’s the confusion.  I actually said I don’t LOVE Bach, and used it as a springboard to discuss why we feel close to some composers and not to others.

I like Bach, and I admire him more than any other composer. But I just don’t feel a deep connection with him in the very root of my being.

Some people have been surprised by this; some have been shocked (as if I announced in 16th century Rome that I no longer believed in God); and others have agreed with me.

How do you think classical music can reach newer and younger audiences?

Perhaps by not being too worried by it! Young people will never want to do what their parents do socially, so all we can do is to make sure we have confidence in the quality of great music, perform and program it at the highest level, keep our own love for it fresh, make it available … and then trust.

You compose a lot and transcribe music for the piano. How does that activity fit into your career as a performer?

Actually, I write very little for the piano.  I’m much happier writing for choir, or cello, or piccolo, or other instruments in a way.

Here is a recording from YouTube of a Hough playing his own version of the “Radetsky March”:

I’m making an exception now as I’ve been commissioned to write a piano work for the 2010-11 season.  It will be a set of small, intense, desolate pieces with a winter theme – some of them less than a minute long.

The last piece I wrote with piano was my trio for piccolo, contrabassoon and piano, and was commissioned by members of the Berlin Philharmonic last year (“Was mit den Traenen geschieht”).  There are plans to record this for BIS next year.

Posted in Classical music


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