Surely one of the most versatile and accomplished artists around today, British pianist Stephen Hough is the guest soloist at this week’s series of San Francisco Symphony concerts. Conducted by Edwin Outwater – Director of the Symphony’s Summer Concerts – Hough and the Symphony perform Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No 5, known as the Egyptian. Also on the program are works by Weber, Busoni and Hindemith.
Stephen Hough CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) is not only an extraordinarily talented concert pianist, but a composer, an author, and a painter as well. The Mail on Sunday refers to “his peerless technique; his impeccable taste […] and his ability to make miniatures sparkle like finely cut diamonds”. The Boston Globe says: “It’s hard not to be a little awestruck by the breadth of Stephen Hough’s passions, to say nothing of his talents. [He] is simply one of the most interesting musicians around”, and The Guardian simply refers to his performances as “the most perfect piano playing conceivable”.
The first classical performing artist to win a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (in 2001), Stephen Hough has had his own works – pieces for orchestra, choir, chamber ensemble, and solo piano – performed by ensembles such as the choirs of Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral, the Indianapolis Symphony, musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic, and by London’s National Gallery, the Wigmore Hall, La Musée du Louvre, and Musica Viva Australia.
Among Hough’s many recordings, for which he’s received numerous awards and nominations, is a complete set of the piano concertos by Saint-Saëns, a composer who was himself a master of the keyboard. A child prodigy, Camille Saint-Saëns was playing the piano part of one of Beethoven’s sonatas at the age of four, and at ten years of age made his formal debut at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, performing concertos by Mozart and Beethoven, together with works by Bach, Hummel and Kalkbrenner.
Unusually for a 19th century French composer, Saint-Saëns wrote music across a wide range of genres – opera, symphonies, concertos, songs, works for solo piano, chamber music and choral music, both sacred and secular – around 300 works in all. His 5th Piano Concerto was written whilst he was on vacation in Luxor in Egypt, and it premiered in May 1896 at the Salle Pleyel, with the composer as soloist – marking the fiftieth anniversary of his debut there.
This week’s program also features three other works. It opens with Weber’s overture to his opera Oberon written in response to a suggestion by Charles Kemble, proprietor and manager of the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, where the work was premiered on April 12, 1826, and conducted by the composer shortly before his death on June 5 that year.
The Saint-Saëns concerto is followed by excerpts from the Turandot Suite by Ferrucio Busoni, which he wrote in 1904-05. It was based on a commedia del’arte play by 18th century playwright Carlo Gozzi, written in 1762, which in turn was based on a Chinese legend – the same legend on which Puccini based his Turandot some 20 years after Busoni’s work was created.
The concert ends with Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Weber – which has an interesting link with the Busoni suite. Hindemith’s Metamorphosis is a work in four short movements, the second of which is the overture and incidental music written by Weber for a translation of Gozzi’s Turandot by German playwright Friedrich Schiller, in 1802.
Edwin Outwater conducts the San Francisco Symphony and guest artist Stephen Hough at Davies Symphony Hall, in a program of four concerts, which opened this evening (January 28). Further performances take place on January 29, 30 and 31. For more information and to buy tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.
Michael Steinberg – former San Francisco Symphony program annotator:
Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No 5
Busoni Turandot Suite
Hindemith’s Metamorphosis on Themes by Weber