"The World of Yesterday": Stephen Hough's New Piano Concerto
Neylan McBaine
January 21, 2024
"The World of Yesterday": Stephen Hough's New Piano Concerto

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the premiere of celebrated pianist Stephen Hough's own piano concerto, a one movement work entitled "The World of Yesterday." My own hometown orchestra, the Utah Symphony, hosted the premiere and co-commissioned the work, so it was an unusual treat to be able to sit in my favorite spot in my frequently-attended hall but hear a piece that no one in the world had ever heard before.

Regardless of the actual music, that experience alone felt like a world of yesterday: being privy to music in the classical tradition that is not only being premiered, but is being premiered by its composer. While the Utah Symphony and music ensembles all over the world often support the works of new and living composers, I don't think I've ever heard a premiering work actually performed by the composer. It felt like the days of Lizst or Chopin or Rachmaninov, when the birth of the piece into the world was inextricably linked to the parent and no to a surrogate interpreting and representing the composer's actual vision. I felt truly privileged to experience a milestone moment in the career of one of classical music's finest champions today.

The composition itself was surprising in a number of ways. Most premiered music in the symphony hall carry the trademarks of contemporary music: tonal experimentation, prominent percussive or rhythmic expression, and often a deemphasizing of the traditional string sections in favor of other parts of the orchestra. In contrast, The World of Yesterday was surprisingly traditional, while still fabulously textured and virtuosic.

In a brief conversation before the piece, Hough described to conductor Donald Runnicles the various influences that inspired the concerto. He described a prominent Viennese waltz theme, echos of Prokofiev, and Brahmsian interactions with the orchestra. I later learned from this article in The Classical Review that the composition originated in a commission to write a score for a film set in pre-World War II Vienna, which explains the source for that particular theme. Hough also emphasized that the piece is meant as a celebration of past influences, not a nostalgic or regretful look at a better time. "I truly believe we live in the best of all times," he said, which gives us the freedom to explore what's come before while also putting our own stamp on it. The title, he explained, is taken from the title of the last book by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, a memoir of his cultural life in Vienna before the First World War.

While true originality is difficult to achieve when answering the influences of the past, Hough's piece breaks with tradition in a few significant ways. First of all, it has a full narrative title, rather than just an opus and number or key. I'm fully in favor of this, as it feels like pieces with descriptive titles have more staying power and recognition among modern audiences. Secondly, it is a single movement piece, although it does have three distinct sections, taking no more than 20 minutes. Additionally, the Cadenza comes very early - in the first "Prelude and Cadenza" section - resulting in an extended period early in the work where the piano is featured by itself with no orchestral accompaniment. Hough also used an iPad propped up inside the opened piano, a refreshing reminder that even the composer himself is not superhuman. With iPad technology advanced enough to follow along with the music as it's being played, I for one hope we see more soloists take advantage of this aid especially with new music.

While the premiere was advertised in several music industry publications like Gramophone and well-publicized by the Utah Symphony, attendance at the Saturday evening concert I attended was not what it should have been for an event of this significance. Although Salt Lake City audiences are usually very supportive of their orchestra and visiting artists, Hough might be a little too esoteric to be widely recognized here. Hough is a polymath - literally named by The Economist as one of "Twenty Living Polymaths" - with an incredible array of distinctions, including four books and sixty albums. More known in his native Britain than in the United States, he is on faculty at Juilliard but resides in London. I suspect the lower attendance at this concert had more to do with the programming of Ralph Vaughn Williams' 5th Symphony in the second half of the evening than any lack of support for Hough.

To be clear, those that attended were wildly enthusiastic about the concerto and Hough in general. His encore was a brief piece by early 20th-century British composer Frank Bridge. The entire program was dedicated to British music. (Besides Hough, even conductor Runnicles is Scottish.) The evening started with Edward Elgar's tone poem Cockaigne (in London Town), delightfully energetic and amusing while featuring Elgarian trademark themes he would later develop in his Pomp and Circumstances. The concerto then followed. The Vaughn Williams came after an intermission.

About 40 minutes long, the symphony is often described as "pastoral" for even this most pastoral English composer. While I relished some extraordinarily beautiful themes - especially the cello theme in the third movement which I could revisit on repeat - the length and lack of contrast between movements were hindrances to the piece being fully transformative in my book. I do personally love 20th century British music, so I delighted in being introduced to this thoroughly English work which I hadn't heard before. Instead of exclusively male British composers - Elgar, Hough, Bridge and Vaughn Williams - my only change would have been including one of the range of female English composers who were also very active in the 20th century.

A night like this at the symphony is, for me, a grounding experience. It connects me with all that I love about the past and music's inevitable connection to what came before us. But it also breathed vitality into the art form with literally in the moment newness, showing that all that has come before is only a gateway to continued exploration of beauty and creativity.

Photos courtesy of stephenhough.com

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