The celebrated musician will perform “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” April 13-15 as a guest of Seattle Symphony. Olari Elts will be the guest conductor.

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In a 2014 commentary published in The Telegraph, of London, the ever-eloquent Stephen Hough — one of the most celebrated pianists of our age and guest of the Seattle Symphony April 13-15 — addressed the problem of performance anxiety for concert musicians.

After describing the “fear of being rejected … [the] exposure to judgment,” the British-born Hough, 56, proffered a Big Picture perspective on transcending ego: “[W]hat better ambition can there be … [than] to leave self-obsession behind and take the audience on a journey across the high wire of Beethoven or the flying trapeze of Liszt.”

Keeping out of his own way as a deeply reflective interpreter of piano repertoire informs Hough’s creative sensibility, including frequent performances of Sergei Rachmaninov’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” which he will play at Benaroya Hall under the baton of guest conductor Olari Elts.


Seattle Symphony

With Olari Elts, conductor, and pianist Stephen Hough, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 7 p.m. Friday (a shorter “Untuxed” program) and 8 p.m. Saturday (April 13-15) at Benaroya Hall, Seattle; tickets from $13 (206-215-4747 or

“I’m constantly amazed at what a miracle of construction the ‘Rhapsody’ is,” says Hough in a phone interview from Hong Kong. “While it doesn’t have endless depth of humanity, you don’t feel that any bar in the piece could be cut out. You need every one, and the balance of it all is beautiful. It’s like a very elegant building; it just works.”

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Written by the late-Romantic Russian pianist and conductor in 1934, the “Rhapsody” was one of only a handful of compositions he completed after moving to the U.S. Another was the 1940 “Symphonic Dances,” which is also on the SSO bill.

That Paganini “theme” refers to the final and best-known caprice in the Italian composer’s “24 Caprices for Solo Violin,” completed in 1817. The fiery, demanding piece, along with some of the other caprices, have served as the basis for numerous original works — including by Schumann and Brahms — that explore multiple variations on Paganini’s music.

That’s precisely the aim of Rachmaninov’s “Rhapsody,” comprising 24 variations on the 24th caprice. Of these, the 18th variation is the best-known, recognizable from film soundtracks such as “Groundhog Day” and “Ronin.”

“Many people who don’t like Rachmaninov’s style consider the ‘Rhapsody’ his masterpiece,” says Hough. “It’s written fantastically well for orchestra and piano. He combines a lot of effervescence with a deep, Romantic spirit.

“After World War I, you have the beginning of jazz, you have all of those developments coming from America. I think this was Rachmaninov’s experiment in that world. There is a moment in one of the variations that has the feeling of a beautiful Gershwin or Cole Porter tune. Another sounds like Art Tatum racing all over the keyboard. The ‘Rhapsody’ has a lean, modern, American feel about it, whereas with Rachmaninoff’s second and third concertos you feel very much you’re still in old imperial Russia.”

In the five years since Hough’s last appearance in Seattle, his status as a revered, lavishly awarded, classical music institution has grown through a stream of articles in major American and British publications as well as through his extended, beloved relationships with the likes of the BBC Proms festival.

Hough, a 2001 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient, is frequently called a polymath and Renaissance man for his multiple accomplishments as an award-winning poet, a longtime blogger for The Telegraph, a painter, lecturer, first-time novelist, the devoutly Catholic author of “The Bible as Prayer: A Handbook for Lectio Divina,” and a composer commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic, Westminster Abbey and the Louvre.

When he gets up in the morning, how does he decide what to do?

“The hierarchy is set out for me,” he says. “The first priority is piano. I have to be 101 percent prepared. I find that at other times of the day, if the creative juices are working, I might want to write or compose. I sometimes just feel like there’s an explosion of fire inside. I have a number of things on the go, and I just look around my internal desk and see what I most want to work on that day.”