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Pianist Stephen Hough to Play a Famously Difficult Work With the Vermont Symphony Orchestra

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Stephen Hough - COURTESY OF SIM CANETTY-CLARKE
  • Courtesy Of Sim Canetty-clarke
  • Stephen Hough

This weekend's Vermont Symphony Orchestra concert is a must-go for two reasons — aside, of course, from hearing the excellent VSO musicians perform. One is that guest artist Stephen Hough, a UK-born pianist, will perform Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3: a famously difficult piece played by one of the most acclaimed and enduring soloists on the circuit.

The other reason is Tania Miller, a seasoned conductor from Canada who is making her debut with the VSO as one of its seven music director candidates. She is one of three women on the list. Miller follows Akiko Fujimoto, who conducted the season's opening concert last October, and Peter Askim, who led the Holiday Pops last December.

The "Rach 3"— as it is known to musicians and, thanks to the 1996 movie Shine, the public — opens with a simple, haunting melody, played by both hands in unison, that gives no hint of the fireworks to come.

Rachmaninoff composed the concerto in 1909 for his first American tour, when he was already a famous pianist well beyond his native Russia. He premiered it with the New York Symphony Orchestra and its conductor, Walter Damrosch; weeks later, Gustav Mahler conducted the New York Philharmonic performance. 

In an email interview with Seven Days, submitted while he flew between performances in the UK and Estonia, Hough called the work "a piece which sets the pulse racing and the heart glowing."

He confirmed that the "Rach 3" is "enormously difficult to play" — not just because it contains three times the number of notes of many similar pieces but also because of "the need to colour, shape, phrase every one."

Rachmaninoff "put into it everything he could do," Hough said of the piece. "It's an encyclopaedia of romantic pianism."

Hough has been performing around the globe since he won the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation's International Piano Competition in New York in 1983, while still a student at the Juilliard School. Among his more than 60 recordings are Ludwig van Beethoven's complete concertos and, most recently, Frédéric Chopin's Nocturnes, hailed by Alex Ross in the January New Yorker.

Hough's music making is "all crystal clarity and measured eloquence," as one New York Times reviewer wrote. A polymath, he also finds time to paint, compose and write poetry.

And he'll lead a master class for four young pianists the day before the concert. Three are Vermonters: Isabella Gravina-Budis, 14, from Charlotte; Richard Jiang, 13, from South Burlington; and Tejas Srinivasan, 19, from Middlebury. (The fourth is William Lehninger Swist, 10, from Spofford, N.H.) The aspiring performers were chosen by audition; they'll play Beethoven, Chopin, Joseph Haydn and Betty Jackson King under Hough's guidance. The public can watch for free with a reservation.

Tania Miller - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Tania Miller

Maestro Miller shaped Saturday's program around Hough's choice of concerto. Looking for "pieces that somehow relate but are different," as she put it during a phone call, the conductor chose Finnish composer Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 1, completed in 1900.

"Finland is so close to Russia," Miller noted. "But the Rachmaninoff is full of soaring, virtuosic melodies. Sibelius is more ice, wind and snow — a sense of loneliness and how small we are in the face of a greater world. The phrases are very long to unfold."

Known for her championing of contemporary music, Miller will open the concert with "Yatra," a 2016 fanfare by Dinuk Wijeratne, a Sri Lanka-born Canadian composer who is also a conductor and pianist.

Miller described the three-minute piece as "a wonderful, sunny fanfare that brings us all together. Dinuk has said he's always inspired by the diversity of people.

"Contemporary works cause us to listen differently," she added. "It keeps the art form moving forward."

Miller grew up in Saskatchewan and, after studying piano in college there, earned her master's and doctorate in conducting at the University of Michigan. She served as the music director of Victoria Symphony in British Columbia for 14 years and has guest-conducted around the world, including recent engagements in Seoul, London and Calgary.

If chosen to be the VSO's music director, Miller would become the second woman to hold that position. She said she's familiar with the legacy of popular conductor Kate Tamarkin, who served from 1991 to 1999 and widely expanded the orchestra's audiences.

Nationally, conducting is still largely dominated by men. Last year, when Marin Alsop stepped down after 14 years at the head of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, she was still the sole woman to have led one of the top 25 American orchestras. Now Nathalie Stutzmann is set to lead Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which will make two.

Miller's perspective on the matter of women conductors is more international, however — and more sanguine.

"I do think it is getting better," she said. "There are a number of really exciting, vibrant female conductors."

Among others, she named Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra; Lithuanian conductor Mirga Grainyt-Tyla of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (UK); and American conductor Karina Canellakis of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, who guest-conducted the VSO in 2018.

"It's a slow process," Miller continued, "but the more that people work with women and feel the potential of women, [the more] it becomes normal. That fabric of what we expect — the sense that women and men can be conductors — is really changing."

Hough's choice of piece raises a different issue: playing music by a Russian while that country attempts a brutal military takeover of Ukraine. Some music institutions are canceling Russian artists, most notably the Metropolitan Opera, which suspended star soprano Anna Netrebko's upcoming appearances. Others are striking Russian music from their programs, including the Polish National Opera, which canceled Modest Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.

But for Hough, this is no issue at all.

"I have no qualms about playing this wonderful piece at any time, a concerto which is so full of warmth, humanity and deep emotion," he wrote. "If anything, a work like this is exactly what we all need right now to remind us of the power and beauty of great music, which has no passport and which is understood and loved by people of all cultures and languages."

Stephen Hough Master Class, Friday, March 25, 4 p.m., at the UVM Recital Hall in Burlington. Free; reservations required. flynnvt.org

The original print version of this article was headlined "Rocking the Rach"