Utah Arts Review – Stephen Hough’s new concerto looks to the past as well as the future

by Rick Perdian

Sir Stephen Hough’s response as to the inspiration for writing his Piano Concerto came as a surprise.

“It’s a long story, as I never thought that I would compose a piano concerto,” said the celebrated musician. “I just did not see the way into writing one and thought that my first would most likely be for the violin.”

That dynamic changed during the Covid-19 lockdown. During that period, Hough was approached to compose music for a film set in pre-World War II Vienna. The plot of the movie revolved around the composition of a keyboard concerto. Although the film project never materialized, Hough sensed that he had the beginnings of a piano concerto in the sketches he had made for the film score.

On Friday night, Hough will perform the world premiere of his concerto, titled “The World of Yesterday” with the Utah Symphony under the baton of Sir Donald Runnicles at Abravanel Hall.

The evolution from those early sketches to a full concerto was somewhat out of the norm for Hough, a part-time composer whose inspiration usually doesn’t strike him when sitting at a desk. Most of the time, he is jotting down ideas in a notebook while on the road, later crafting them into a composition when there is the time and space to work. Hough likened the process to “putting the ideas into a pressure cooker where they develop and mature.”

All that changed during the pandemic, as without the constant travel and rehearsing, Hough had more time to compose. It was a particularly fruitful period for him, as in addition to beginning work on “The World of Yesterday,”he completed his String Quartet No 1 “Les Six rencontres” for the Takács Quartet and Songs of Love and Loss, his most recent song cycle. “I work better with a hard deadline,” said Hough.

Even though the concerto was an offshoot of the aborted movie project, Hough stresses that it is not program music. The sketches he composed for the film, however, gave him the germ of a concerto. “I was really excited about that, and once I got my feet into the water with it, I realized that this was going to be a piece which I could play.”

One idea became the concerto’s opening theme composed in a style Hough describes as akin to that of Aaron Copland’s “big sky” music Another was transformed into its “Austrian” theme, which evokes the music of Erik Wolfgang Korngold, who was active during the era in which the movie was to have been set.


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