Marathon Men

Classic Arts Features   Marathon Men
To close out the St. Louis Symphony subscription season, Stephen Houghplays the "Rach Fest," in which the phenomenally skilled piano virtuosotakes on the formidable task of performing three Rachmaninoff concertsover two weekends.


That's two performances of the First Piano Concerto, two of the Second, and two of the Third, over six concerts. Hough has performed a similar feat with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, when Fred Bronstein was President and CEO there, and he's played all Tchaikovsky piano concertos at the BBC Proms.

The last guest soloist to play a concerto "marathon" with the St. Louis Symphony was the incomparable percussionist Colin Currie, in 2008. Currie played three different percussion concertos over a three concert weekend: Steven Mackey's Time Release, HK Gruber's Rough Music, and Christopher Rouse's Der gerettete Alberich.

I give Currie a call to get some additional perspective on the challenges Hough may be facing, reaching the percussionist while he is engaged in a residency at Stanford University. Currie says he hasn't performed a percussion marathon since the 2008 concerts, but not for a lack of his own interest as an artist. "I've not done it again. I've done two concertos in the same concert: again with the St. Louis Symphony: at Powell Hall and at Carnegie. I could do it again."

The impetus to take on such a challenge, Currie says, was first and foremost a desire for artistic exploration. "I felt it was the presentation of a suite of pieces over three concerts. I needed to see that these things were connected. There was a sense to the whole project: to show where percussion is at the moment. A snapshot: This is what can happen in the world of solo percussion."

The process, however, was not without its harrowing moments, particularly in rehearsal. "I do remember my brain being a little terse with me," Currie recalls. "The Mackey was the trickiest piece. I remember during a rehearsal in which we did all three concertos back to back, my mental state had a violent reaction after the Mackey, a slight revolt before going on to the Gruber. I had to convince my brain to take one note at a time."

Currie observes that his percussion event differs from Hough's piano display, in terms of logistical as well as artistic goals and challenges. "Hough's program is a very different thing. It has a very jubilant composer focus. But it also has something of the marathon aspect: so many notes."

So many notes. Anyone who has even glanced at Rachmaninoff's solo parts, or just knows the lore of the Third as mythologized in the popular film Shine, may think that Hough can use all the help he can get.

But when I reach Hough in London, he sounds rather blithe about the undertaking. "Everything is a challenge," he says philosophically, then demures, "although I'll admit it's not easy. We'll see how it works. I just played both Liszt concertos in one concert."

Does he need to prepare differently, in the way runners need to prepare for the extra distance? "There isn't a large amount of extra preparation," he says calmly. "I don't think so really. I think you have to be a little loose with it, not think of it as so daunting. You do the best you can."

If there is any comparison to running an actual marathon, he says, "The difficulty is getting the adrenaline going. It's like the hard thing about running is warming up and starting to run." Once you've focused yourself on all those notes, you play them.

But those notes you play are Rachmaninoff's, after all. "He wrote for his own spectacular technique: and I don't just mean the fingering: all of it: the use of the pedal, the color."

For Hough, the interest lies in what may be discovered, by artist and audience, with an in-depth exploration of a composer such as Rachmaninoff. "You find how different the concertos are in terms of style," Hough explains. "He actually has many styles: each piece with a different character, different colors.

"You feel a sense of progression in his writing," Hough continues. "These pieces were actually written 2, 3, 1. [The numbering of the concertos refers to the order in which they were published, rather than composed.] The First Concerto was revised 10 years after the Third. When he wrote the Second he wasn't yet identified as a concert pianist: he was a composer. He wrote the Third for his first American tour.

"You see him thinking of textures. The Second Concerto is the biggest, the thickest; the Third is more transparent; the First is very lean." You hear Rachmaninoff learning to achieve more with less.

Hough has one additional challenge with which Currie did not have to contend: Currie had the support and collaboration of one conductor, St. Louis Symphony Music Director David Robertson. Hough works with two different conductors: Hans Graf and Rafael Fr‹hbeck de Burgos.

"It's a matter of negotiating the integration of our ideas and our responses to each other," says Hough, which isn't, after all, different from what guest soloists do every week from orchestra to orchestra, conductor to conductor.

The common denominator, for Hough and Currie, are the musicians of the St. Louis Symphony. Currie does not offer advice for Hough: "I'm an admirer. He's more than capable," Currie says: but he does offer some assurance: "He's doing [the marathon] in the right place. The orchestra was very supportive. It was very churchlike in how they gave me a calm atmosphere, a sort of spiritual level of support."

That support is more than enough to inspire any musician to go the extra distance.

Eddie Silva is the External Affairs and Publications Manager of the St. Louis Symphony.

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