stephen hough

Oregon Symphony review: French feast

Pianist Stephen Hough’s breathtaking performance of  Saint-Saëns’s final concerto highlights the orchestra’s Francophilic program


It was an all-French program, and accordingly three French stars were assembled. Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was on hand with La Valse (Waltz). Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was at the concert’s center with his Concerto No. 5 in F Major for Piano and Orchestra, “Egyptian.” And conductor Ludovic Morlot, born in Lyon in 1973, came on loan from the Seattle Symphony, where he has been music director since 2011. But the true star of the Oregon Symphony’s November 21 performance was from England: the acclaimed pianist Stephen Hough, whose playing of Saint-Saëns’s concerto was breathtaking.

Two other Frenchmen, Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) and Claude Debussy (1862-1918), also made their contributions. Maestro Morlot chose Debussy’s “Cortége et air de danse” from his youthful cantata L’enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Son) as his program opener. Not in any way “modern” for its time, the charming five-minute miniature, at least gave an idea of where Debussy came from before he became the revolutionary composer of his later years.

Stephen Hough performed with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito.

Stephen Hough performed with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito.

Chausson’s 1891 Symphony in B-flat Major, on the other hand, which closed the first half, was more substantial, at least in length (34 minutes) and fullness of orchestration — though not in its musical content. Throughout its three movements, the symphony more or less constantly introduced new musical fragments that never coalesced into melodies. The effect was of things begun but then abandoned even before they had had time to become interesting. Although Chausson re-introduced some of the melodic material from the first movement toward the end of the third, apparently in an effort to “conclude,” it was far too little, far too late. Maestro Morlot and the Oregon Symphony did their best, leaning heavily on Chausson’s almost interesting orchestral colors, but the piece is a non-starter, notable chiefly for its composer’s championing of Richard Wagner’s musical language, with its reluctance to arrive at codas, not otherwise common in France at the time.


Stephen Hough performed at Portland State University.

Stephen Hough performed at Portland State University. Photo: Sim Cannety-Clarke.


The British have a reputation for being calm and collected, forthright yet subtle, emotionally understated, with a firm grasp of logistics and planning, doggedly pursuing and never losing sight of the ultimate goal. To the extent this is so, Stephen Hough is the quintessential British pianist. All these qualities were on display during his performance at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall Monday evening, which was this season’s foray into solo pianism by Portland presenter Friends of Chamber Music.


Stephen Hough performing at Carnegie Hall in 2010. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito Credit: Hiroyuki Ito

Stephen Hough performing at Carnegie Hall in 2010. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito


Next Monday, Portland’s Friends of Chamber Music presents the British polymath Stephen Hough in concert as the perfect closer to its 75th anniversary season. Already a legendary concert pianist at the energetic age of 51, Hough is also a composer, painter, and writer whose winsome engagement with the arts prompts those listening and reading to become active participants. In 2001 Hough became the first classical performing artist to win a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, which awards $625,000 over five years to creatively intelligent individuals who who use their unique talents to benefit society.

For this Portland concert, Hough has chosen to perform pieces by Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner, Anton Bruckner, Johannes Brahms, and Frédéric Chopin. He shared with ArtsWatch his thoughts on classical music including performance, marketing, repertoire, and composition.


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