Sunday, December 06, 2015


A relative few days following “Paris (November 13)”, "Mali (November 20),"  “Colorado Springs (November 27), ” and now it was “San Bernardino (December 2).”  My faith in humanity was at a very low ebb, I was physically beat after a long, hard string of days.  I had a toothache, and, all in all,  I surely didn’t feel like going out on that dark, cold night, not even for a master class by the world renown Stephen Hough in the brand-new and striking Galvin Hall on the banks of Lake Michigan on the Northwestern University campus.

I looked for one last excuse, e.g. repertory that didn’t interest.  Turns out, the pieces to be presented were among my very favorites.

And so I pushed myself out the door.  I joined another 100 or so of the musically curious in this metropolitan area of nearly 10 million who filled up about one-fourth of the new, intimate hall to hear an internationally-celebrated master hold forth on things artistic in a very unartistic, and unappealing world that is today the status quo.

And I’m glad I did.  I got a recharge.  I would guess most everyone did.  We surely needed it.

According to one bio sketch, British-born Stephen Hough is not just a piano giant.  His is one of just some 20 genuine polymaths on planet earth.  (The other “19” weren’t named, btw).  In any case, it is a fact that he was recipient of the MacArthur Grant (2001), a.k.a. the “Genius Grant” and inventor of an iPad app (on the Liszt Sonata).  On his own time, off the concert stage, he writes (The Bible As Prayer -- he converted to Roman Catholicism at 19, a move that vexed his Protestant grandmother), paints and exhibits, composes, conducts, tweets and blogs.

A fine profile of this unassuming genius may be found at:  (Excerpt:  “In a world in which neuroses are the norm, the 51-year-old is amazingly easygoing. I remember him once in an Italian restaurant on the outskirts of Chicago after a heavy-duty concert with Gustavo Dudamel. At the end of dinner, he walked over to the piano and began to improvise on the songs of Cole Porter. There are few (classical) pianists who could do this. Even fewer who would. It might have helped not having a Tiger Mother childhood like so many other musicians. His youth was healthily misspent.

“Crossroads at 6.30pm, then Emmerdale Farm, Coronation Street, World in Action, Love thy Neighbour, The Nine O’Clock News, Horizon...” he recites lovingly, running through the TV listings from the Eighties as if they were the names of old friends. “For about four years all I did was watch television. I suppose my parents should have stopped me.”)

It may be just this childhood lifestyle -- normal -- that allowed him the space to develop into genius-level interpreter vis-à-vis the roboplayers that Tiger Moms produce.  His style of playing may be described as insightful, free, and eminently creative.  In that, he is a bit of a throwback to an earlier generation -- the opposite of today’s crop of ‘machine learning’ and indistinguishable  keyboardists.

It was just this style and concept of music that he was trying to share with the three NU acolytes, a rather uneven trio.  To take what at least one of them was presenting -- a tangled and mushy mass of notes and sound -- and make it articulate, with breath (“how long can you wait here before pressing on?”), and inflection, humanity, art, and musical meaning.  And, in the case of the other two students, to take some real, bonafide heroic romantic pianism and elevate it to a yet higher level.  Something that Hough was well familiar with, as his pianism flies at that level continuously.

The works:  Schumann’s Kreisleriana, Op. 16 (two movements), Liszt’s La Leggierezza from Three Concert Etudes, Chopin Ballade No. 3, and Medtner’s “Sonata Tragica.”

The stage was set with two pianos.  Hough sat next to his students, played and illustrated right on his own keyboard.  (Not all clinicians do, but all should.)  Some bon mots tossed out and some gauntlets thrown down along the way, amidst the technical talk of the eight shades of pedaling, melodic delineation, harmony and counterpoint:

  • PHRASING.  We can learn more from the phrasing of Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle than any classical player.
  • DEDICATION.  Josef Lhévinne practiced for 10 years on a particular double note etude before presenting it in public.  Would you be willing to do that on this piece?
  • EXPRESSION.  How much time can you take there?  Be vulgar.  Be in terrible taste.  Exaggerate.
  • FREEDOM.  Liszt was always improvising.  These notes on the page he was probably writing while on horseback or in a carriage.  They are an approximation.  Be free with it.
  • SOUND.  More shimmer here, more half-light there.
  • RUBATO.  Godowsky (profiled in Obscure Composers 2;  once the world’s greatest pianist, now obscure to all but a few like Hough, who has recorded some of his work) was asked how can you make two voices sound different?  He answered:  can’t play them at the same time, you must use rubato.
  • IMPROVISATION.  Chopin wrote four ballades, but improvised another 10.  People who heard him said the improvised ones were even more powerful, but they are lost to us now.  But we should retain a bit of the spirit of improvisation in all our playing.
  • Churchill would ask for his favorite, the Chopin Ballade No. 3, calling it the “one with the rocking horse in the middle.”

The next night Hough returned to Galvin for his own performance.

It had been a dark day, now it was a dark night, but Hough infused the hall for more than two hours with a countermeasure charge of oxygen, light, learning, humanity.  The jihadists had taken the day, but now art was taking back some of the night.

Postscript.  In the aftermath of the master class, we have been listening to Stephen Hough on Spotify.  His recording of the Hummel pianos concertos is not to be missed.   Johann Nepomuk Hummel is profiled along with 99 or so other little known composers in our new book, Obscure Composers 2.


John A. Sarkett is the author of Obscure Composers, Obscure Composers 2, Bach and Heaven:  The Promise of Afterlife in the Text of the Cantatas, Death in classical music:  making friends with the unfriendly, Extraordinary Comebacks: 201 Inspiring Stories of Courage, Triumph and Success, and a number of other titles to be found here and at Amazon. 

The Sports Bubble Is About to Pop - The Daily Beast

The Sports Bubble Is About to Pop - The Daily Beast

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Because inquity shall abound

San Bernadino, Colorado Springs, Paris....who is next......?
Bible students will recognize the title is a quote from Matthew 24, where Jesus outlines characteristics of the end times....