It’s an understatement to call English pianist Stephen Hough a remarkable individual. He seems more like a consortium of people: all with the same name and all busily engaged in their particular areas of interest.
It would be impossible to comprehensively summarize his multifaceted career. Instead, let’s take a close look what Hough has done this autumn:
He released a new CD – his 44th – called Stephen Hough’s French Album. It was dubbed “outstanding” by International Record Review magazine.
Hough had an exhibition of his paintings in October. London’s Broadbent Gallery displayed 15 of his bold abstract canvases in a month-long solo show. (See here.)
He’s also maintained his weekly blog for London’s Telegraph newspaper, on topics ranging from music and art to mobile phone apps and the medicinal properties of honey.
Somehow, Hough also finds time to teach, at London’s Royal Academy of Music and Manchester’s Royal Northern College. Earlier this month he was named a governor of England’s Royal Ballet companies.
“I do have friends who say, ‘Why do you push yourself so much?,’ ” Hough said last week. “But I’m not really aware of pushing myself. Historically, 99 percent of the population has worked hard. Most people got up when the sun rose and worked every minute until they went to bed. I’d be restless if I were doing nothing.”
His constant productivity is an entirely natural result of his creative impulses, he says.
“I’ve always felt that playing the piano just by itself was not enough,” he continues. “And the feelings of creativity that I have when I’m playing need a further outlet. I feel like I need to move into other directions.”
And he readily offers reasonable-sounding explanations for his wide-ranging activities.
“I wasn’t intending to be so public about my art,” he says, almost apologetically. “My painting is a private thing that I do for relaxation, after a day of practicing. But a photographer took some pictures of my paintings, and I ended up posting them on my website. People saw them and asked about them. And then a gallery owner in London asked if I would be interested in doing a show.”
As for his prolific blogging – he’s written more than 500 short essays in the past three years – it was a simple matter of one thing leading to another.
“I was approached by the Telegraph, and they asked if I would be interested in doing a blog. My first thought was that I had only about 10 posts I could do on musical subjects. So I said, ‘As long as I don’t have to do it regularly, and as long as I don’t have to write about living colleagues, and as long as I can write about topics other than music, I’d be very interested.’ They said that would be fine.”
A pianist, composer, artist, essayist and poet, Hough has often been called a Renaissance man. The Economist magazine recently included him on a list of 20 prominent polymaths around the world.
Would “eccentric” also be a good word to describe him?
“If an eccentric is someone who is looking beyond the borders and boundaries,” he responds, “then that’s absolutely something I want to be.”
Is he concerned his penchant for visibility might come across as blatantly self-promotional? He’s evidently given the question some thought.
“Being absolutely honest, I suppose there are some occasions when I might write about a new project. No one who issues a CD would say, ‘I don’t want anyone to buy it or listen to it.’ But where does self-promotion change from being something that’s necessary into an ego-trip? In life, all of us have to guard against this. There comes a point when self-promotion becomes something unattractive and unhealthy.”
The 50-year-old pianist grew up in Northern England and studied at the Juilliard School. For many years he’s maintained addresses on both sides of the Atlantic, in London and New York. He seems to have successfully married the British concept of “a well-stocked mind” to an American can-do attitude.
Yet he says he’s careful not to overextend himself.
“I do turn down a lot of things,” he points out. “And I don’t arrive in a place and start playing the next day, if it’s a great distance. I allow a couple of days to get over the jet lag.”
He also says he’s planning to cut back on his engagements next year – not to rest but to devote more time to composing. (He’s currently writing a sonata for a friend, the renowned cellist Steven Isserlis.)
“My friends are right,” Hough acknowledges, “when they say I have to keep a close eye on my work and not take everything on.”
© Colin Eatock 2012