Skip to main content

How to Save Classical Music, According to Stephen Hough

As the genre faces tough economic times, the acclaimed pianist is rethinking how to perform, present, and market it.
Pianist, poet, and painter Stephen Hough.

Pianist, poet, and painter Stephen Hough.

Having your work critiqued in public is a rite of passage for promising young classical musicians. One recent afternoon, a short walk from the beach in idyllic Montecito, California, a group of players participated in such an event—formally known as a "master class"—with a teacher who wielded unusual authority. They played the music of Stephen Hough for Stephen Hough.

Any anxiety that preceded the afternoon session proved to be unwarranted: The veteran British pianist and composer was highly encouraging, and generally happy with what he heard. But he was a stickler on one point: They were sloppy in the way they turned over a sheet of music.

"Page turning," he insisted, "should be part of the performance."

The performers listened intently, and for good reason: Hough, the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, conveys a quiet authority. The Economist called him one of the world's leading polymaths, a designation that indicates he is deeply knowledgeable about many subjects. Besides being one of the most acclaimed classical pianists in the world, he is also a painter, poet, and writer of prose; he provided the unusually eloquent program notes for the recital he performed the following evening. A gay Roman Catholic, he is awaiting the publication of his first novel, which centers around a priest who goes on retreat after losing his faith and being blackmailed by a prostitute.

A native of Liverpool, England, Hough, 55, won a major piano competition at age 21, and has been performing around the world ever since. He has given considerable thought in recent years as to how to get more people interested in the classical repertoire. Sitting around a picnic table on the bucolic campus of the Music Academy of the West, he shared some of his ideas.

They include—as that aforementioned comment suggests—convincing musicians to conceive of concerts as theatrical experiences; getting rid of intermissions, among other musty traditions; and, perhaps most intriguingly, marketing classical music for what it is: a challenging art form that is very much worth the commitment and effort.

Ironically, just as programs like the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Youth Orchestra Los Angeles are proving classical music can be a strong force for social good, the art form is facing tough economic times. In recent years, a number of American orchestras have folded—including, most recently, Montecito's neighboring Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra. It's clearly a time for new thinking, and Hough is happy to provide it.


I smiled when you commented that "The page turning should be part of the performance." You're serious about that.

Totally. Every physical act you do when you're on stage is part of the drama of the performance. Playing a concert is theater. It's one of the reasons I think we should have a different costume for playing a concert, as opposed to listening to a concert. It doesn't have to be tails, but I think we need to emphasize that this is something that's not of the everyday.

We listen to music because it lifts us up from [our state of mind when we're] buying bananas at the local shop. Ideally, it takes us to an ecstatic state. If you're going to play the slow movement of the Schubert B-flat sonata, and you go to the keyboard with a fast motion, you're not playing it in your heart before you start it. The five seconds before you begin are important. Music starts in the silence. A page turn is the silence in the middle. If the silence is a silence of suspended animation, your physical movements have to reflect that.

Speaking of silence, you are quoted as saying that, if you ruled the world, every school day would start with 15 minutes of silence for prayer, meditation, or simply deep breathing. Is that something you practice?

No. But it's a good idea! I do think silence is important. Of course, it's not dead silence; it's breathing, really. I think it would be good for kids. I feel so sorry for kids now. Their lives are so filled with distractions. They've been forced into an overactive world where there is no room for repose. That's not good. If you're going to enjoy [an] amazing bed of flowers, you need to be quiet to do it. You can't race past.

There's an argument that, in the pre-electronic era, humans had more access to their inner lives, and the great composers incorporated those feelings into their music. Thus listening to Mozart or Brahms provides access to emotions that we've largely lost touch of in this era of constant distraction. Do you think that's true?

I do. Music helps us find our way into that inner world. It actually takes up the time. You can glance at a painting, but if you listen to a five-minute-long piece, it forces you to be in that space for five minutes. Also, it teaches discipline—a word that too often has negative connotations, like you're being rigid.

You have argued that in a world where there is so much competition for leisure time activity, perhaps classical music should be marketed honestly—which is to say, it's often challenging. Do you feel there is a latent desire on some people's part for more demanding material?

I think young people like a challenge. They like to go on long trips and climb high mountains. Competition plays a role in this; it doesn't matter if you win a race if it's not a difficult one!

Is this elitist thinking?

There should be no sense at all of social or financial exclusion. But "elite" doesn’t have to be exclusive in that way. "Elite" can mean something that's difficult to do, and not many people will do. We have no problem with elitism in sport. We're not asking champion tennis players to dumb down their games. We admire them for what they have achieved.

I love the Carpenters. [Karen Carpenter] had a beautiful voice. There's room for everything—but that includes the late quartets of Beethoven. Not everyone is going to get it, but let's not say, "It's too difficult to present to people." It isn't.

But how do you convince people that it's worthwhile to listen to more complex music, or read more complex novels, when there is so much shimmery, surfacy stuff vying for our time and attention?

It might be easier with a Beethoven quartet than a novel, actually, because you can link a concert to a social event. This is something we should be looking into more. There are certain concert organizers who simply think that if you put something on at eight o'clock, people are going to come. We know that isn't true. I've talked about changing the times of concerts—having them earlier, or later. Let's put together a package with a restaurant so somebody can go to a 6:30 concert that lasts an hour, and then have dinner at a discount. If the commercial and the artistic side would work together, it benefits everyone.

I've always been puzzled that we have concert halls that spill out 2,000 people at the end of a concert—but because of the time of the concert, it's too late to eat. People want to get home! Let's think this through. The L.A. Philharmonic has a Casual Fridays series [which are shorter and begin earlier]. I've done one of those, and I thought it was really great.

You have also argued for ending the intermission.

I go to the ballet quite a lot in London. On a triple bill, they will have two 25-minute intervals. I've been so frustrated by this. They make money at the bar selling champagne, but it's frustrating. It's not long enough to leave the hall and go to a restaurant, and it's not really good for conversations. You either want to have a proper conversation with someone, or just say hello. It's too long for a coffee break. If they just ran these things back to back, we could start at 7:30, be out by nine, in time for coffee or dinner. I realize that, in opera, the singers need to rest their voices, but with a lot of concerts, we have intervals simply because it has always been done. There's no real reason for it.

Interactivity is something of a buzzword today. Are you on social media? Do you try to forge a direct relationship with listeners?

Yes. But you can't be daily email friends with hundreds of people. I'm on Twitter. People can write to me on my website, and I try to respond to everyone who writes. It's a balancing act. You do need your privacy. Also, if you're too available, you lose something of the theatrical experience when you perform on stage. I have friends who are actors, but I don't want one to catch my eye and wave to me if I'm watching him play Othello. I do sometimes speak from the stage, but I don't want to be too "pally." I think there should be a certain distance between the artist and the audience.

And speaking of theatricality, it seemed to me the subtext to most of your comments to the young musicians was "Don't afraid to be dramatic!"

In a way, there are no rules any more in all of the arts. And yet people seem bound by certain tightnesses. The players I have coached this week are all fantastic, but everyone can be pushed a little bit further—to be freer, to be more daring. To be an artist, whether you're a musician, painter, or writer, you have to have that daring.

I think the problem is that, since the Second World War, we have confused "daring" with "breaking rules for the sake of doing so." Beethoven was a great rules-bender, rather than rule-breaker. Even his most outrageous pieces, like the late quartets, are still within classical forms. He doesn't smash [the guidelines set down by his predecessors]. For me, that creates interesting tension.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.