Despite my disinclination to sound like I'm working for local TV news, I think we'll have to start this story with the car crash. It was 2006, and Stephen Hough - lauded British concert pianist, MacArthur Fellow, "a virtuoso who begins where others leave off" (Washington Post) - was three out of five movements into writing a mass for the Westminster Cathedral choir.
He was headed south on the British M1 highway after a concert - and, well, we'll let Hough, from his blog for London's Daily Telegraph, take over from here. "A lorry moved into the middle lane where I was cruising along at around 80 mph and I calmly moved over into the fast lane ... at which point something terrifying happened. My car screeched out of control swerving, spinning ... then suddenly it was tumbling in somersaults across the three lanes. As it turned over four or five times many thoughts raced through my mind one of which was that I would never get to hear the music I had written that week."
But Hough stepped out of the wreck relatively unscathed, living to complete the final two movements of the mass - the fourth while waiting for a brain scan following the accident; the fifth while in a practice room at, coincidentally enough, Hilbert Circle Theatre. The mass was then written for only choir and organ, but Hough had a sense that there were orchestral possibilities. So when the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, with whom he's been appearing since the late '80s, approached him about two years ago with the idea of something of an all-Hough show that would include a commissioned piece, he figured his Missa Mirabilis would do quite nicely.
Thus, the ISO and the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir will perform the world premiere of the choir-and-orchestra version of Missa Mirabilis this weekend, on a program that also includes Hough's performance of Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1. Hough arrived in Indianapolis at the beginning of the week, leaving time for him to work with Nicholas McGegan, guest conductor for the weekend, as well as conduct his first ever Tweetup on Monday night. Things were just taking shape as I called him at his hotel: "We've already had two questions from Kenya, so I think we're off to an interesting start, anyway."
Not that Hough's a stranger to Twitter, on which he can be found as houghhough: "I used to sort of jot things down or write a quick email to a friend; and now, instead of doing that, I put ideas on Twitter that come up as I'm walking around. It's also a nice way to interact with people; to have that interaction with people you may never meet is quite special, in a way." He also makes a point to interact with fans on his blog: "I used to reply to everyone as point of principle. I didn't know what trolls were in the early days, so I just thought that with a bit of reasoned argument, you could get through to them. I like the challenge, actually, of an interesting argument; I like for people to come up with opposing views and to think things through. In another life, I might try to be a diplomat, because I quite like finding calm ways through a difficult situation, finding ways to include both views, if possible, without compromising any one truth."
In Missa Mirabilis, Hough also attempts, particularly in the Credo movement, to include differing points of view - doubt and faith, innocence and experience: "The Creed is the central movement of the five. The text is by far the longest; the other four are poetic, really, whereas this one is theological. I think, traditionally, it's always been a difficult text to set for those reasons; you don't want it to be overlong because it could throw the balance of the whole piece out. When I was commissioned originally to write this mass for organ and choir for Westminster Cathedral, I started right there: What am I going to do with the Credo? Then I started things this through, and I was thinking about the innocent boys voices that they have there, and then the men's voices of experience, and I just thought it would be interesting to play around with the idea of what it means to believe.
"It ends with the men singing the words of the Creed but never singing 'I believe,' and it begins with them saying it by rote, never thinking about what the words mean, with no expression at all in the way the music deals with the words. By the end of the piece, it's become despairing because the female voices are literally screaming 'Credo'; there's such an argument going on between the upper and lower voices that reaches a big climax. Then, actually, the last lines, 'I believe in eternal life,' fizzle out into nothing."
Eric Stark, artistic director of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, has been rehearsing the Missa Mirabilis with the choir since January. "It's a tricky piece, and it took us a while to get the handle on the notes," he notes. Stark observes that the mass is "cut from a more or less traditional musical cloth," using "functional harmony as we know it," but availing itself of the "full palette of harmonic language," with occasional jazz rhythms and gestures to French composers like Faure and Poulenc.
Hough doesn't disagree: "Absolutely; it's a tonal piece, but I hope it's tonal with a twist. The first movement, the Kyrie, is romantic, in a sense, because I want to set up this sweet, almost French, kind of palette, so that when things go wrong in the Credo, we can come back to that at the end of the piece. It's bookended with music that almost verges on sentimental, because I do want to create a slight mood change in the middle, so that you feel slightly disturbed by how things are going. ... You can do a lot of things with purely atonal music; it can be humorous, ironic, aggressive. But I think that there's no question that if you want to express tenderness, nostalgia, a sort of homecoming, somehow you need tonality as some sort of place to go from, because if you don't have any anchor at all, then everything sounds the same, and this is, of course, the danger of any purely tonal or atonal music. You need the contrast to set the black off from the white; if it's all black or all white, then you can't read anything."
One last question for Hough before the Tweetup: Will this week prove unusually taxing, with the need to prepare the world premiere of his Missa Mirabilis (on which he will not perform) and for the Mendelssohn concerto? "We'll see! I've never done it quite like this before. I've done the Mendelssohn with McGegan before. It's not one of the most complicated pieces to rehearse with the orchestra; in fact, I've even directed it myself from the keyboard. It's a wonderful piece, with incredible freshness and vitality, but it's not like a Rachmaninoff concerto or Brahms concerto; you just have to have your fingers moving. That's the one thing: If I'm going to listen to the Mass, I'm probably going to have to dash backstage as soon as it is over to start warming up to play the Mendelssohn."
[A+E] Classical Music, Theater + Dance
[A+E] Classical Music
[A+E] Classical Music, Dining Out
[A+E] Classical Music
[A+E] Classical Music