Celebrated pianist Sir Hough returns to the city for 2 performances

Yao Minji
British pianist Sir Stephen Hough collaborated with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra for two concerts in the city.
Yao Minji

Sir Stephen Hough was experimenting with various pianos on the stage of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra one week prior to his two performances earlier this week.

The British pianist, composer, novelist, and painter, who was named one of 20 "Living Polymaths" by The Economist in 2009, returned to Shanghai after 12 years. He gave a recital on Tuesday and collaborated with the symphony orchestra on Thursday, performing Brahms and Beethoven piano concertos under the baton of the orchestra's artistic director, Yu Long.

"Every style and every piece require a different piano," Hough said, explaining his piano selection process.

"But, of course, that's not practical, so we choose the pianos that have the most qualities in one place."

He added that in the past, the piano was similar to the iPhone in that new upgrades were constantly being released.

"The piano that works for Prokofiev is not the same piano that Beethoven wrote for, so this is also something that we are always trying to think of," he said.

Celebrated pianist Sir Hough returns to the city for 2 performances
Cai Leilei / Ti Gong

Sir Stephen Hough gave two performances in Shanghai.

"I'm also looking for a piano that's like a partner – a little exciting but also with a certain reliability. So it's not someone who says, 'Let's have dinner on Wednesday' and not turn up; I want them to turn up, and when they do, I want to have a good time."

For the recital, he chose a Boesendorfer that he found in the storage room, while for the concertos, he chose a Steinway.

The pianist is on a three-week tour of China. He has been incredibly impressed by Chinese audiences, especially "very quiet and concentrated" Shanghai audiences.

"China now has such an incredible musical culture," he said, adding that his Chinese students at The Juilliard School frequently impressed him.

His first doctoral student was the Chinese pianist Sun Jiayan, a native of Shandong Province who now lectures at Smith College in Massachusetts. As a published author, he believes that words are "incredibly powerful" and "change the world." Chinese words and poetry also fascinate him.

Celebrated pianist Sir Hough returns to the city for 2 performances
Ti Gong

Stephen Hough and Yu Long during a rehearsal.

"I always love to work the way words sound as well, and I wish I could read and speak Chinese," he said.

"Because your poetry not only has the sound of the words but also the picture on the page. That's another dimension that is so beautiful. That visual side to poetry doesn't exist in Western literature."

His 2018 debut novel, "The Final Retreat," was written in the form of a diary to convey the idea of a wounded healer.

"I wanted to recreate what it means to be in despair, to feel that life has no meaning. What do you do when everything is collapsing around you?" he said.

"It's a psychological novel written as a diary. The idea of the wounded healer means that even if you are depressed, you can still bring joy to other people."

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