It’s hard not to be a little awestruck by the breadth of Stephen Hough’s passions, to say nothing of his talents. In addition to being a pianist of uncommon depth and sensitivity, Hough is also an increasingly visible composer, a painter whose works have been exhibited at London’s Broadbent Gallery, and a deft and imaginative writer, whose unfailingly interesting blog for London’s Telegraph newspaper covers seemingly everything: theology, hats, tea, perfume — and music, of course.
Call him a renaissance man, a polymath, or a genius (he won a MacArthur fellowship in 2001): Hough, 53, who makes his Boston recital debut on Friday in the Celebrity Series of Boston, is simply one of the most interesting musicians around.
“I feel a bit like a book of Debussy Preludes rather than a book of Beethoven sonatas,” is how Hough described his character during a recent phone conversation, referring to the wide array of Debussy’s visual references. “Or indeed Schumann, like the ‘Davidsbündlertanze.’ What I love in a piece like that is how sparklingly diverse it is; you’ll have this piece of incredible tenderness which is heartbreaking, and then he’ll burst into something that is like slapstick humor. That kind of quirkiness appeals to me in many ways.”
One of the many interesting things about Hough is that those “quirky” intellectual pursuits arose in someone who knew from a very early age that he wanted to dedicate his life to music. When he was 5 he found that he could pick out nursery rhymes he knew on his aunt’s piano. He begged his parents to get one in their house in the north of England. When they finally did, “I was on it all the time. My parents actually had to drag me away from it and say, ‘Go and play football, get some fresh air.’ ” Hough’s mother picked his first piano teacher out of the Yellow Pages. When the teacher left his house, “I would say to my mother, ‘Can you bring her back? I’ve already memorized the pieces she left for next week. I want another lesson.’ ”
Asked when he knew he wanted to be a pianist, Hough answered, “I think from day one that’s what I wanted to do.”
Yet Hough’s career path was anything but straightforward. Despite his early enthusiasm for the piano, Hough had what he describes as “a very difficult teenage time. Not that I was doing drugs or anything like that, but I was working very little. I spent six hours a day watching television for a number of years, [and] didn’t do very well” at the Manchester music school he attended. “Everyone said, you’re never going to do anything with your life.”
The one thing he always enjoyed and did well, even in those hard years, was writing. He thinks of his current literary pursuits — in addition to the blog and program notes, he has begun work on a memoir of his early years — as a way of recapturing the explorations he’d forgone earlier. “I suppose it’s making up for lost time, being a little bit of a late developer in some ways,” he said. “I want to catch up a little bit.”
Gradually, he found his way out of his ennui, what he called “the return of seriousness. I stopped watching television and I started listening to more good music. And I gradually started to learn how to concentrate more and how to spend my time better.” Around the same time he converted to Roman Catholicism, having been raised “loosely Protestant.”
Asked how he reconciles his faith with the fact that he is gay, Hough gives a typically thoughtful response, colored by the broad stokes of theological doctrine.
“I’m hopeful that the church will catch up. One thing that gives me confidence is, Catholicism is very reverent about everything in the natural world, in the sense of seeing the created world as something God-given. And I think as we find out more and more that homosexuality is simply something there, not something that we invent ourselves — it’s just part of the natural world, like whether you have blue eyes or green eyes — once that develops more, I think it’s going to have to be seen as part of the whole picture, of what it is to be part of the human race.”
One of Hough’s most recent compositions is his “Missa Mirabilis” for chorus and orchestra, a recording of which has just been released on the Hyperion label. The title is a reference to a serious car accident he had after a concert in 2006, a day after he’d completed three movements of the Mass. As the car somersaulted off the highway onto the shoulder, Hough found that time was “standing still at these moments, as everybody says.” Among a flood of feelings, he said, “the thing that was most touching is that I’d spent all this energy writing this Mass and had it with me in the car, and I’ll never get to hear it now.”
And then Hough discovered that he was still alive — indeed, he walked away from the car with only a scratch on his forehead. Of course, he made sure to retrieve the briefcase that contained his sketches and finished movements for the Mass. He wrote most of the Agnus Dei while waiting in a London hospital to have a brain scan.
While it felt like a miracle that he survived and was able to complete the piece, there is a part of Hough that shies away from thinking that God saved him. Difficult questions inevitably arise: Why was he saved, but not thousands of people in the recent Nepal earthquakes?
“Life is a miracle for anyone who lives it, on any level, however little religious belief you have or not. So I think we can all talk about miracles whether we believe in a higher being or not.”
Hough’s Boston recital is centered on Chopin’s four Ballades, pieces that he has played since he was young, surrounded on either side with works by Debussy. While there are all sorts of fascinating comparisons and diversions to be made between the two composers, for Hough the most important aspect of the entire program is that “it’s so gorgeously written for the instrument. These are two composers who understood the piano as well as anyone who’s ever written for it. So they both understand — and I think this is something that non-pianist composers don’t — how chords ring on the instrument: how overtones work, how the spacing of chords works, where you place the third, so that it doesn’t become muddy and is always transparent.
“You sit down, and from the very first bar to the end, I just enjoy how it feels to play this music on the keyboard,” Hough continued, “They’re both just such craftsmen. There’s never a bar where you feel, oh, this is too much.”
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston
At: Jordan Hall, Friday at 8 p.m.
David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidg