Stephen Hough chats to Limelight’s editor about Aussie audiences and why chefs may be as important as conductors.

First of all, congratulations on winning Limelight International Artist of the Year. 

Oh thanks, I’m absolutely thrilled and delighted. It was a lovely surprise. I feel very close to Australia in so many ways and I always enjoy visiting and playing there as much as anywhere in the world, so it makes me particularly happy.

You play all across the world, is there something special about Australian audiences?

I think almost every night – even in the same city – an audience is different. I think there’s a sense, if I can generalise about Australia, that there’s a freshness, because I think there isn’t that much going on. In London there are so many things going on – two opera companies, five symphony orchestras, the recitals – you don’t have that in Sydney. So I think when people do go to concerts, there’s a sense of something special about it.

I think also there’s also something of the New World mentality about it – that we haven’t seen and done it all before, and there are wonderful things still new in life to discover. Whether I’m projecting that, or whether I’m really getting that, I still have that sense when I’m playing.

But of course, when I’ve been on Musica Viva tours and gone to places like Armidale and Coffs Harbour, that’s a very special audience. You get locals who are deeply devoted to chamber music and that’s very, very touching. You really feel like you’re bringing these cultural things right into the centre of those dedicated communities.

Do you think a freshness or New World feel extends to Australian musicians as well?

Yes, I just think it’s everywhere. You’ve got a whole range of wonderful venues to play in and I think that Australian concert promoters seem to get it. They also realise that it’s important to be able to eat somewhere afterwards. In both Sydney and Melbourne you have this wonderful sense that the concert hall isn’t just somewhere you go to and hear the concert and get in your car and go home.

It’s partly to do with the amazing weather. You tend to come out of a concert in Australia – unless it’s the depths of winter in Hobart – and you find that it’s warm! So let’s go and have a glass of wine and have something to eat. That side of it is very appealing, and we mustn’t forget that however rarefied and serious concerts are – and they are – it’s still a night out.

Yes, I believe that the main rival for concert promoters nowadays is audiences choosing to stay in with Netflix or whatever is available as home entertainment. The challenge is to make it worthwhile for people to go out.

This is why I think we may end up finding that chefs are as important as conductors for the future of classical music. Because, frankly, we need to have a concert which ends up as a totality – a wonderful evening for everybody. I don’t think that the music alone is enough. We can hear it all at home. We can hear it in our car. You might even have a better sonic experience in the car than you can in the concert hall.

What you gain in the concert hall is that edge of live performance and the community of the people who have gathered there to hear it. In the end, human beings need to be, and like to be, with one another. It’s part of how we function as creatures. I think it’s tremendously thrilling when you’ve been to a wonderful concert, or film or play, to talk about it afterwards with someone, to share your enthusiasm. Or to even disagree – that’s also quite fun!

Stephen Hough. Photo by Andrew Crowley

We hear a lot about aging audiences for classical music. What are your views on getting new people along to concerts?

I don’t think getting young people to love classical music is just about making it easier for them. I think young people enjoy a challenge and I don’t think we should be talking down to them. The worst thing is middle-aged, middle-class people telling young people what they should be liking and how they should be doing it.

I was at Lulu at English National Opera last night – it was a fantastic performance. There’s no way that an opera like Lulu can ever be easy to listen to. It was never meant to be. It’s meant to be something that goes deep, deep inside. I think we need to throw people in the deep end and say, “This is really, really tough – come along!” When I was at school, I remember asking the English teacher which was the most difficult book to understand and she said Finnegan’s Wake, so that was the book I wanted to check out of the library. I think a lot of people have that feeling.

What about the formality of the concert hall and whether we allow people to applaud in between movements?

The not applauding in between movements thing came in in the early 20th century. We don’t quite know exactly why. In the time of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and so on, it was routine to applaud between the movements and I think you hear certain pieces where this is just expected. The final proof to me is that letter Brahms wrote – I think it was after the First Symphony – where he said, “Didn’t they like it?” because he was quite surprised that they didn’t applaud.

And where do you stand of what we should wear, on and off the platform?

I think people are pretty free now about what they wear in the audience. But we shouldn’t forget this is theatre. There is something to there being an empty stage that’s then filled. The lights go down and the conductor or soloist comes out and starts playing this amazing music. I think there’s a very powerful theatre about that which we shouldn’t neglect. We have to do it carefully, and it should never have anything to do with snobbery, but I don’t see anything wrong in having a different costume onstage, because we are doing something different than we do in everyday life. That’s why it’s so wonderful. The music isn’t just about continuing everyday life, it’s about taking us to a whole new planet of experience.

I interviewed Joyce DiDonato recently – a musician who has always been involved in causes. Her new album was triggered by the Paris attacks and she wants to say something about the value of peace. But are classical musicians really able to make much difference today?

It’s interesting, isn’t it? I have two feelings about this. On the one hand, I really feel that music is without words – not the music that Joyce is involved in, but at least the sort that I am a part of. Therefore it cuts across all cultures, and more than just cultures, all opinions. So when I’m playing for an audience, I’m playing for many who may believe in fundamentally different things from me. I feel that in that moment we can press the pause button on whether Brexit was a good idea or whether we believe in renewing nuclear weapons. I don’t feel that I need to ask that of my audience, or indeed, I don’t feel that I have the right to challenge them about those things in the moment of the concert.

But then I look at Yehudi Menuhin, whose influence went way beyond the concert hall – like going to Bosnia to play during the war. Or I look at someone involved in the Middle East like Daniel Barenboim. Obviously for them it’s something they have to do – whether or not it makes a difference is very hard to judge. In fact, in the present the day, it’s hard to judge whether anyone at all makes a difference. 

So what are the causes that are important to you, or that you choose to speak out on?

I think I choose to speak out on not choosing to speak out – if that makes any sense. I no longer have my blog at the [UK] Daily Telegraph – they closed down all the blogs there. When I did touch upon controversial subjects outside of music – even sometimes within music, actually – I wanted to try and include as many people as I could. Because I really think that on every issue there is space where we can meet people with seemingly opposite views. We even saw this with the Trump and Obama meeting. Two men who have called each other all sorts of things were able to sit together and talk and actually agree on certain things, and that seems to me what we should all be aiming at.

I think there are people with edgy views who push them – even force them – and fair enough. In a sense that’s what a politician has to do. In the parliament, I’m on the side of the diplomat, I think. I’m more interested in where opposing views can meet and become friends, and I think music is a wonderful way of doing that. It is possible for people on all sides of the fence to sit down and listen to a concert, and for that time, be at peace. What I would like is for the period of peace during the playing of a Beethoven sonata to be extended beyond that, and maybe that’s something music can do well. 

And what do you do to relax?

Oh, gosh, I enjoy walking. Not necessarily in the countryside, but around cities. Every city that I’m in, I try to walk everywhere and take as few taxis as I can. Reading, of course, always reading. I don’t really watch television – certainly not when I’m travelling. I almost never turn it on – I don’t find that relaxing. I love movies but I never get around to watching the ones that I want to watch. At the end of a day of rehearsals – or even after a concert – I don’t mind being alone in a restaurant with a nice meal, a glass of wine (I always try and check out the Australian wines first), and a good book. For me, that’s the greatest recreation I can think of.