on working with Stephen Hough

Recently, my youth orchestra was given the opportunity of a lifetime – and I really do mean that. World-renowned international pianist Stephen Hough contacted us and requested that we accompany him playing the lesser known, but absolutely incredible Dvorak Piano Concerto in G minor. We spent hour upon hour in rehearsal, suffering Monday evening sessions until 9pm, and spending a day with a piano student from London to get used to the piano part before our four-day residential course with our fabulous conductor Andy Morley at Belsey Bridge Conference Centre in Ditchingham.

Hough arrived on the Tuesday evening to much excitement, and we spent an hour and a half rehearsing with him that night. All of us were so completely in awe that we played better than usual. The next day we had more time with him and I was desperate to commit it to memory; let me share what I wrote in the break immediately after.

***

We spend the first hour and a half of rehearsals on the Dvorak. Having (just about) got over my star-struck state  I can actually pay attention to our guest. Hough is quietly gifted, not showy or exaggerated; he seems reserved and gentle. We play the slow second movement, which perhaps means these features are more pronounced, and work hard on certain sections. At one point, during a section without the piano he leaps up from his stool, swirls off his jacket, drapes it across the piano and sits down just in time to play his next phrase; perhaps there is some exuberance in him. It occurs to me that this amount of rehearsal is probably a rarity for him, and that his life is, perhaps, rather lonely. He must spend it travelling from venue to venue, concert to concert – piano to piano. Professional string, brass or woodwind players at least have their instrument to accompany them everywhere; a a kind of friend – particularly if they are the only travelling partner – but each performance for Hough means a new instrument to learn and adjust to; no trace of home. He must practise alone, and normally, I imagine, spends very little time with his accompanying orchestra – perhaps a run through on the day. Spending time with us and watching – indeed, helping – us rehearse must be a very different experience.

Partway through our rehearsal, the sustain pedal on Belsey’s old ‘Challen’ grand breaks completely. Hough jokes that it is out of ‘shock’; “Shock and awe!” Andy suggests. He continues, laughing. “It’ll sound a little odd…”. I think that if the piano is the oddest sounding thing in the room we must be doing pretty well. The piano is placed a little too far back for us to see his hands without craning our necks, which we can’t do for fear of losing sight of Andy’s beat or our place in the music, but I glance towards his feet and see that he continues to naturally press the air above the pedal as if it were still there. His eyes are closed and the notes which we’ve repeatedly been told are entirely un-pianistic and cruel to the performer seem to float from his hands as easily as a C major scale.

It’s hard to pinpoint why accompanying him is different to the student we had, Edgar, but there’s just so much sparkle to his playing. I think it’s that he takes more control; Edgar was still learning, new to this, and he followed Andy’s tempo and direction the way us in the orchestra do. Here, Hough becomes the leader; Andy follows him, and we have to adapt, adjusting what we have already learned to fit our soloist. We struggle to find a balance between following Andy’s direction and baton, Stephen’s solos and melodies which we have to accompany, and our own musical instinct. Even in an hour and a half’s rehearsal, we grow as an orchestra beyond all measure.

Afterwards we have a fifty-minute break and I make a point of approaching him to tell him what a privilege it is to have this opportunity. He looks me in the eye as he shakes my hand; his eyes are deep and smiling. His face is kind. I ask whether he is hoping to record the Dvorak; he tells me next year. He explains that he is performing it next week in Madrid, which was all well and good until they told him that it was going to be televised, at which point he thought it would be best to get some performance practice in first. We ask, “Why us?” and he replies, “I don’t know. It was my manager.” I wonder whether performing with a youth orchestra is actually more difficult than a professional one because we don’t really know what we’re doing with this kind of music, so perhaps it is even stretching him. Our inexperience is evident not in the tutti sections, some of which Andy told me yesterday “sound like a professional orchestra”, but in the accompaniment, as we are used to being in the spotlight, rather than being the spotlight on someone else.

A group gathers in intimidation and awe; Billie, Dom and I make conversation. He asks us what our plans are for next year – he is most taken by Dom’s place at violin making school and they discuss this for a while. We ask if he knows Norfolk, and he reveals that an aunt used to live in Sheringham, and in fact helped teach him piano, but it’s a long time since he’s visited. What shall he do in Norwich? We suggest the cathedral, and the castle where there is often art (for he is not only a pianist, but a poet, writer and artist too – I later discover he actually has a column for the Telegraph). I don’t ask which football team he supports, despite my joke with Dad. He is happy to take photos but has to leave after fifteen minutes. We apologise for taking up his time. “No, no, not at all. This is so exciting. I’m so pleased to be here. I’m really impressed.” And he is sincere.

***

The concert took place on the 17th April in Norwich’s St. Andrew’s Hall, and all I can say is that it is the single greatest musical experience of my life. The piece which, back in January when we first received the music seemed impossible, flew beneath our fingers with an ease I’d never imagined, and Andy’s ecstatic face when the audience broke musical law by applauding between the first and second movements made every exhausting rehearsal utterly worth it. These things will stay with me forever, beneath the true magic of the evening: Hough’s indescribable playing, glittering like starlight.

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the beautiful Fazioli piano brought up from London for Stephen to play

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7 Comments

  1. 27/05/2014 / 10:52 am

    I have no musical talent at all, and scant knowledge of the classical catalogue. However, this tale of performing with one of the greats was most touching, and a delight to read.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • 27/05/2014 / 11:47 am

      Thanks Pete, it was truly the most amazing experience!

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