Stephen Hough: “Penang can make money out of the arts if it does it right”

loading Stephen Hough live. Photo: Robert Torres.

World-renowned pianist Stephen Hough was in Penang recently to perform his first-ever concert in the state. He chats with Penang Monthly about life on the road, the realities of a career in the arts, and of course, his love for music.

Stephen Hough is used to being solo – both on and off stage. Strolling alone through a side entrance of Dewan Sri Pinang in an unassuming blazer over a plaid shirt, Hough may have been easily mistaken for a visitor or tourist; and while he has played both roles at one time or another in Penang, on that evening of August 24, he was much more.

Hough performed with the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO), delighting the audience with his interpretation of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The lack of an entourage, or indeed even an assistant, is a bit unnerving if one has a hint of the list of extraordinary achievements this British-born maestro has accomplished thus far.

Besides being one of the world’s leading concert pianists, Hough is an accomplished composer and author – his fourth book Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More was published around the time of the PPO concert – and has had his paintings exhibited more than a handful of times since his first solo exhibition in 2012; though the latter is something he tends to leave out off his biographies.

In 2009 The Economist named Hough one of 20 living “polymaths” in the world. A polymath is defined as a person of wide knowledge or learning, and it is a term which Hough jokes he had to look up as well. Allured by Penang after a short holiday here two years ago, Hough decided to return to the country, and to perform outside of KL. His manager arranged for a concert in George Town.

For the Love of Music

Hough’s musical talent was evident very early in life. At the age of five, he was practising so much that his mother had to persuade him to take much needed breaks in-between. “My mother would say, ‘Stop practising, go out and play!’ But I didn’t want to do anything else. I just wanted to practise with all of my being,” he says.

“It should become a way of coming together with your friends; being able to say ‘I’ll see you at the concert tonight’ or ‘How about a drink or dinner afterwards, or before or even during (the concert)!’. I think something all cities need to explore more is the way people come out to the concerts. Making music like this brings people together, so the arts become human enrichment. And, after all, what else is there in life?”

Hough’s talent naturally evolved into a profession – he has been a classical pianist for an astounding three decades now, after having jumpstarted his performing career at 22.

From Vienna, Glasgow and Warwick to Örebro and Fishtail in Montana, Hough performs up to 100 concerts around the world each year. Prior to his concert in Penang, Hough was in London at the BBC Proms where he performed Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 on Queen Victoria’s gold leaf piano in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of the monarch’s birth. It was the first time the instrument – gifted to Queen Victoria in 1856 by the esteemed Erard instrument-making firm – has been played outside Buckingham Palace.

Though singers and artistes are often painted with a glamorous hue, life on the road is not nearly as enticing as it is portrayed to be, Hough says. “There’s also all the travelling, so we’re talking nine to 10 months a year that I would be away from home in London.” Recalling a conversation he had with a student at The Juilliard School, a private performing arts conservatory in New York City of which he is a faculty member, Hough delves into the realities of a performing soloist.

“He was going on about entering this competition and I asked, ‘Well, do you want to win?’ and he looked at me, astonished. I repeated my question. ‘Do you want to play 100 concerts a year? Do you want to never see your friends? Do you want to be constantly travelling? Do you want to learn six new concertos in the next two months?’ He started to wonder then.

“People enter competitions like entering the lottery or something where there’s a prize involved. But this is serious stuff because if you win, your life is no longer your own. A lot of students don’t think that through,” Hough says.

But despite the never-ending hotel rooms (which are sometimes the only part of the city he sees other than the concert hall), days spent at airport terminals and missing home, Hough feels called to a life in the arts. “You have to love it. Like any job, you don’t always want to do it every day. But you have to see it as a vocation, really, in some way,” he says.

Performing in Penang

George Town’s humble Dewan Sri Pinang hardly measures up to the best concert halls and prestigious arts centres around the world. The multipurpose hall has limited seating and is very challenging when it comes to acoustics. Hough, however, waves all that away.

“I like to play in different surroundings. I was in India a couple of years ago with the Symphony Orchestra of India and that was fascinating. And I think here, there are so many young people in the orchestra and I love that. I’m thrilled when I see young people playing,” he says with a smile.

Hough’s affable nature is widely-known; be it pausing his warm-ups to chat with a production assistant about the latter’s dance ambitions or rejecting help in dusting down an old practice piano. In his written reflection on the concert, guest conductor and former Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra resident conductor Ciarán McAuley, who also built the concert programme around the esteemed soloist, lauded Hough’s reputation of being a genuine gentleman and that he had “met and exceeded… expectations”.

Stephen Hough. Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

When asked about Penang’s potential in growing its arts scene, Hough points to his hometown as an example of what benefits the performing arts can bring. “Money spent on the arts is never wasted money. Apart from their intrinsic value, culture is very, very profitable if used right. London makes huge profits out of its cultural exports and imports; people coming for theatre, concerts and so on. Penang can make money out of the arts if it does it right,” he says, adding that the arts could also stand as a great unifying factor for Penang’s diverse communities.

Hough hopes that cities like George Town continue to explore different, flexible ways of making concerts, performances and art events a norm for everyone. “It should become a way of coming together with your friends; being able to say ‘I’ll see you at the concert tonight’ or ‘How about a drink or dinner afterwards, or before or even during (the concert)!’. I think something all cities need to explore more is the way people come out to the concerts. Making music like this brings people together, so the arts become human enrichment. And, after all, what else is there in life?” he muses.

Going The Distance

Hough credits hard work for making his long career in music possible, but a love for music, he stresses, cannot be overlooked. “It’s no good forcing somebody to practice. It’s a very delicate matter because, of course, every child is different and some children will need encouraging. But never forcing. I’ve seen too many lives destroyed (because of this) and it just doesn’t work. Many people go through the grades and then, it all finishes. I’d rather want them to have their whole life loving music,” he says.

Musicians who aspire to become soloists must also ask themselves if they have something unique to offer the audience. “[As a musician,] do you have enough to say? And also, do you have longevity for a career to span 30, 40 or even 50 years? I think that this is often missed with young people. You can play the piano, but do you have a reason to communicate? In the end, somebody has to want to do it, because if they don’t want to do it, why would they have something to say?” he asks.

Still, talent alone will not do. Hough adheres to a practice of no distractions when it comes to music. “I’ve left the piano at 2am feeling physically ill for so many years because I was working so hard. If you are going to make it, you turn off your phone, and you concentrate because the music deserves it,” he says.

An accomplished artiste in many respects, but one does wonder if Hough would have chosen another instrument for himself if given the chance to do it all again. “Oh, I have no regrets! As a pianist, you are very self-contained in a good way, I think. I like the fact that it’s all me, on the stage in a recital; that I don’t have to rely on a good collaborative pianist. If you’re a violist performing a Brahms sonata and you may have the best interpretation, but if you have a lousy pianist, it’s a bad performance. But for me in a recital, it’s entirely my responsibility,” he says.

Of course, performing with orchestras is different, but Hough maintains that he enjoys the range of possibilities he has with his instrument. “I like the fact that [by myself] I am an orchestra; that I have all the possibilities under my two hands. And no other instrument really has that. The harp or guitar are the only two that come close, but they also have such limitations in the strings and what you can actually do. The piano is self-contained. I wouldn’t want to play anything else,” he says.

Andrea Filmer is a freelance journalist who has lived in the US and Australia but, for reasons unknown to herself, finds it impossible to call anywhere but Penang home.

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