Piano Lessons

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An interview with pianist Stephen Hough

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Litton welcome highly acclaimed and award-winning pianist Stephen Hough in a three-weekend "Rachmaninoff Festival." April 22-25, Hough and the DSO perform Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, considered by many to be the most popular piano concerto of all time. April 29-May 1, Hough performs the composer's brilliantly virtuosic Piano Concerto No. 1 and the darkly romantic Piano Concerto No. 4. The imposing Concerto No. 3, one of the most demanding pieces in the repertoire for any pianist, rounds out the three-weekend Festival, May 6-9. A recording of the Festival will be released on Hyperion in late 2004.

Playbill: You're a familiar face to many patrons. How many times have you performed with the DSO?

Stephen Hough: I suppose it's around six or seven different weeks now.

Playbill: What keeps bringing you back?

Hough: Getting asked is a good start! I love Andrew, the players, the management, the hall ... and I have some very dear friends in the area who are fabulous cooks!

Playbill: What's your best memory with the DSO?

Hough: I suppose our concert in Carnegie Hall a few years ago. I played the first subscription week following 9/11, and it was nice to be back at work after such a harrowing time a few days earlier in my apartment in New York.

Playbill: You'll be performing Rachmaninoff's four piano concertos in three weekends. What are the challenges in this?

Hough: Staying alive! Seriously, it's not just playing all the notes (should we have a prize for the person who can count them?), but more about keeping the musical energy level at a peak. This music is high-octane in every way and I don't want one bar to sound routine or unfocused.

Playbill: Is there one that is your favorite?

Hough: Really not. All four are unique masterpieces in very different ways.

Playbill: What would you tell people about the Rachmaninoff concertos that they may not know?

Hough: The First was revised 10 years after he'd written the Third and is a totally different piece from its first incarnation. According to Rachmaninoff's grandson (he told me this himself), the Second has nothing to do with Rachmaninoff's treatment from Dr. Dahl, as is popularly believed, but rather the composer was in love with the doctor's daughter; inspired by love not depression. The Third received its first performance with Mahler conducting. The Fourth was revised at least three times and is more than 150 bars shorter now than at its first performance. It's the most personal and experimental of the four.

Playbill: Is Rachmaninoff your favorite composer for piano?

Hough: He writes wonderfully for the instrument‹unless you have very small hands!

Playbill: Where did your interest in piano begin?

Hough: In a family friend's house, when I discovered the coffin-like box in the corner that made such glorious sounds. I wanted to play straight away and begged my parents for a piano and a teacher.

Playbill: You live in Great Britain and in the United States. Which do you like better (no bias here, of course)?

Hough: Impossible to say. They are both so different. Although, wasn't it Oscar Wilde who said, "We have everything in common with the Americans these days ... except, of course, language."

Playbill: You perform chamber music, you appear with orchestras, in festivals, all over. Which is your favorite type of venue in which to play?

Hough: The Meyerson is easily in the top six, although for recitals it can be wonderful to play in a smaller, more intimate hall. Shriver Hall in Atlanta is fabulous in this regard.

Playbill: Are you able to make friends with other soloists with whom you perform, or are you really like "two ships passing in the night?"

Hough: I tend now only to play chamber music with people I know‹and like! Sadly many of my friends are like ships passing in the night as we see each other too infrequently.

Playbill: What's the funniest thing that's ever happened to you during your travels?

Hough: Wanting to avoid being seen in an unshowered, unshaven state in Sydney, Australia, and then finding that I'd been taped for national TV's Candid Camera. I managed to withhold approval for the broadcast though.

Playbill: What has changed the most in this business since you started performing?

Hough: Gosh. That question makes me feel old! Probably the answer is me. As you play more you learn to cope with different situations more easily.

Playbill: What do most people not know about professional careers in classical music?

Hough: That it's not glamorous most of the time. For example, arriving alone in a deserted railway station in Holland in the rain and having to drag a heavy suitcase to a seedy hotel, having not eaten anything all day.

Playbill: What do you do in your free time?

Hough: Read, walk, see friends ... panic that I'm not practicing!

Playbill: What would most people in the audience not know about you?

Hough: That I have an Australian passport (acquired recently due to my father having been born there); that I wanted at one point to be a priest; that I have a piece of chocolate for breakfast most mornings.

Playbill: What's your most famous encounter as a musician?

Hough: Performing for the entire British royal family, including Princess Diana and the Queen Mother, at Buckingham Palace a few years ago.

Tickets are available by calling 214-692-0203, or by visiting www.DallasSymphony.com or the Dallas Symphony Patron Services Center.

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