Harpo speaks

Last night to the Stuart Challender Lecture, put on by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Customs House.

The speaker was Stephen Hough.

Hough is one of my favourite pianists, and he certainly is my favourite out of pianists who reasonably regularly come and play in Australia. He is hardly so mute as “Harpo.” He has his own website. He writes a blog (maintained for London’s Daily Telegraph). But something about seeing someone speak whom one is accustomed to hear simply play suggested that comparison.

The slated topic was music and religion (that’s a paraphrase). Things ranged wider than that, in part because there was no lecture. Instead, David Garrett (badly miked or suffering from a terrible cold or both) played Parkinson with Hough (better miked or less afflicted and much more nattily dressed) as his sole guest. I know it is ungracious of me to say, but I rather suspect this is because Hough didn’t have the time to prepare a formal lecture.

I’m still not quite sure why I go to occasions such as this. In truth, it was probably because I am a fan of Hough. Maybe it was also one of those “I’m blogging this” moments. Hough referred to these when he recounted with incredulity some advice to would-be bloggers which he had come across: live an interesting life so you can write a good blog about it. Such incredulity is all very well for him, jetting around the world as an international concert pianist, but for the rest of us, maybe that’s what we’ve got to work with. Oh Stephen, spare me your scorn!

Garrett had done his homework. Most of the material he worked with came from Hough’s blog, as did many of Hough’s answers. This was probably fine for most of the audience, if one accepts that age and blog-reading are inversely related. It meant that not very much was new to me.

I am always disappointed with the questions at such events. Often they are a bit silly, or involve someone pushing their own barrow. Maybe it is simply that I would like to push my own barrow, though mostly the example of others deters me. As often happens, I steeled myself to ask a question, but too late. Time was up.

In the “conversation,” Hough referred to his recent blog comments to the effect that if you are learning a piece (seriously, at a reasonably high level) you should go to the score first, and not (as a first step) rush off to the library and listen to whatever recordings you could find. Hough illustrated this point by reference to a number of instances (the Tchaickovsky 2nd concerto, which he is playing at present, and the Liszt sonata – both of which have been referred to in his blog) where he considers that fidelity to the score has been compromised by “bad traditions.” This struck me as odd, and in particular at odds with his generally Catholic approach to the question of tradition (as opposed to scripture). What I wanted to ask was: “How do you tell the good traditions from the bad traditions?”

That’s an old chestnut, I know, both in religion and in music. Perhaps it’s just as well that I was saved from asking it by the (figurative) bell.

There was another question which I didn’t ask and wouldn’t have, though I wanted to. Was it too personal, or simply too rude? I’m inclined to think the latter (at least so far as why I wouldn’t have asked it to Stephen’s face), since I’m not ashamed to mention it now.

Hough, as is not a secret, is gay. He converted to Catholicism when he was 18 or 19. More recently, he has written critically about the Church’s attitude to homosexuality, and he touched on this topic in the course of the conversation. His argument, which seemed to me to be a version of the attempt to excuse homosexuality on account of its reputed genetic causes, went something like this:

1. Recent studies show that homosexuality is much more widespread than was previously thought in the natural (ie, animal) world.
2. Nature is creation. It is God’s sermon in stones. God saw the world and it was good. Revelation is given not only in the scriptures, but in other ways, including in reality. So even if the bible assumes the earth is flat, reality (as created by God) trumps scripture on this point.
3. Accordingly, so far as there are scriptural proscriptions of homosexuality, these can be dismissed as culturally ephemera. The true lesson from God’s creation is that homosexuality is natural, and the old natural-law objections to it will be swept aside. If homosexuality is natural, it cannot be bad, because God has created nature.

It’s an ingenious argument but it is a bit like an argument about how many tackles you can have in Rugby League before you have to have a scrum. If you are not playing the game or following it, it matters little to you. The the game which I don’t play here is believing in God or being a Catholic.

The question I wanted to ask Hough was more about why he wanted to play the game. Why does he want to belong to a club which is so unkeen on having him as a member?

Now, I know there are answers to this. For a start, whereas the law and atheists are inclined to see churches as voluntary associations, believers are inclined to see their devotion as fulfilment of a duty which they acknowledge as a consequence of their beliefs. It is all a bit circular, but that’s what faith is about.

Another answer, though Hough I think attempted to preempt and downplay this, is that his conversion was a response to the romance of “bells and smells” (oddly, to me, Hough said “smells and bells”). Perhaps that is fair enough, particularly if, as seems to be the case, he is referring to a conversion from evangelical religion rather than from a position of complete unbelief.

Another possible reason, which I divine from other biographical snippets, is that Hough took longer to reconcile to his sexuality than he did to convert to his religion (though he has been reported as saying that he knew he was gay when he became a Catholic). I think Hough has said that it wasn’t until he was 37 that he really decided to come “out” – though that may well mean coming “out” publicly rather than to his family and friends. Maybe by the time he fully faced up to the difficulty of Catholicism + Homosexuality it was too late: he was already part of the club and his faith formed. All of this may seem rather impertinent, but Hough himself did joke that many “cradle Catholics” have expressed amazement that he should have chosen the rigours of the faith.

As to how any of this relates to Hough’s music, that’s anyone’s guess. Hough having spoken, I as a fan, and one with an axe to grind, am interested. That’s the Harpo speaking moment: the strange impetus which draws together audiences at literary festivals, which the crowd at the Customs House most closely resembled.

Hough, who lives or has lived in New York, acquired Australian citizenship in 2005. His father (who died about 20 years ago) was born in Mayfield, now a suburb of Newcastle, NSW, in 1926. Hough’s grandparents separated shortly after and Hough’s father only learnt that his father was alive shortly before Hough’s grandfather died in 1960. There was a bit of silly talk from Garrett about whether Hough planned to live in Australia, and Hough (who I think has done just a little to encourage such speculation) explained the practical difficulties this would pose for a touring pianist at his level, though politely he put it in terms of how often Australians would like to hear him rather than how difficult it would be for him to maintain his international career from here. He also gushed on about how lovely Paddington (just visited that day for the first time) was, and how the Sydney Morning Herald is an excellent newspaper. From one who might normally read either London newspapers or some New York newspapers, the latter remark must surely be discounted as visiting-artist sweet talk.

Why then did Hough decide to become an Australian citizen if he can’t live here? It’s not as if he has the sorts of reasons that Hong Kong people had in the 1990s to seek out a safe citizenship. One reason he has offered is as follows:

the third reason for me to try to obtain citizenship came when I discovered some old letters and papers of my grandfather’s and father’s. There was a link here with the past which was in danger of being lost and forgotten.

That is so sweet, and I fancy it shows a truly Catholic attachment to tradition – hopefully of the good kind.

Three after-notes

1. We seem to hear less and less about Stuart Challender at these lectures (which themselves replace the one-time gala concert). That’s probably inevitable over time, though today’s reference in the SMH (not online) to Sydney memories of Irina Plotnikova’s victory in the 1977 Sydney Piano Competition playing the Tchaikovsky second concerto show just how long memories can last.

2. Come to think of it, whatever happened to the annual benevolent fund gala? (Not that I ever went to it – maybe that’s the answer.)

3. Speaking at the end, Rory Jeffes, the new Managing Director of the orchestra, referred to the presently visiting conductor, Hugh Wolff, as “Hugo Wolf.” I’m sure thought (see comments) I heard David Garrett caught on the microphone (danger! open microphone peril!) making a passing remark that “they probably don’t know who he is.” If by “they” Garrett meant the audience and by “he” Hugo Wolf, that would be a bit rude of Garrett. Funnily enough, my opinion of Rory was enhanced by his slip of the tongue – at least it vouches for a reasonable good ear in music.

As to what David Garrett said, on reflection (omg: I’m blogging this!), Thom’s account offered by way of comment below is probably the more accurate transcription.

6 Responses to “Harpo speaks”

  1. Thom Says:

    “at least he knows who he is” …?

  2. marcellous Says:

    Aha! Maybe that’s what David Garrett said, and on reflection is more consistent with both the context and the little I know of him. In that case, David and I really have the same response to the slip.

  3. Thom Says:

    I’m not sure I heard the scorn in Stephen’s reporting of the blogging advice (“live your life so you can blog about it”) – although it does have a ridiculous side. In the sense that it encourages one to get out and do different things in order to have material to write about there’s no harm in it. It’s no different from a photographer deciding to go somewhere or do something purely in the interests of seeking subject matter. And in the sense that it requires a raised awareness – pay attention to your life with a view to sharing it later – I guess there’s no harm in it either. The best diarists of the past surely did this, cultivating their observational instincts. But its implication that the purpose to living life might be the generation of material for a blog is the aspect that perhaps struck Stephen as a bit silly or perhaps even sad.

    On another note, I suspect I’m repeating myself (but I hope not to become an annual ritual) when I say that I’m sorry you didn’t ask your question.

    • marcellous Says:

      Scorn is overstating it: the alliteration (plus the half-alliteration of adjacent consonants) tempted me to it. I think your account is more accurate: but doesn’t that suggest scorn’s close cousin, ridicule?

      And I have a follow-up question, now, as well (to come). Talk about esprit d’escalier

  4. wanderer Says:

    M, this is just to say it is nice that you are back, and at the risk of starting something which can’t be finished here, or more likely anywhere anytime soon, can I ask if the lack of a belief in a god is the lack of a belief in a god of religion, concluding therefore there is no god, which is the position Dawkins seems to take. To not believe is simply the other side of the (to you incorrect) coin of believing. Wouldn’t agnosis be the only defensible stance there? Now, a god beyond religion and genesis, there’s a starter.

  5. “Sibelius in spats” « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] “Sibelius in spats” By marcellous Last night to hear Stephen Hough with the SSO conducted by Hugo Wolf (that’s a joke). […]

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