Call the British-born pianist, composer and writer Stephen Hough a polymath and he quickly demurs. “Actually I have no special abilities in maths or science,” Hough said. “All my achievements are in the arts.”
Still, those achievements continue to be prodigious. Hough, who earned a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2001, has his first all-Debussy record out on the Hyperion label, and he’s appearing Saturday at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, where the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet will perform his trio, “Was mit den Tränen geschieht” (“What Happens With Tears”), which is based on a Rilke poem, along with works by Mozart, Ibert, Barber and Poulenc.
And then there’s this: Hough’s debut novel, “The Final Retreat,” due out next month from Sylph Editions (distributed by the University of Chicago Press). Here’s an edited version of our conversation with the man of many talents.
You were a guest on BBC Radio 4’s “Desert Island Discs” program, and among your musical selections was “Stairway to Heaven.” You’re a fan of Led Zeppelin?
If something catches my ear, I’m really happy to go with it. At one point, I was listening to more of that than I was of any classical music. I had a lazy teenage time where I wasn’t doing much work at school or practicing much. I was spending a lot of time watching bad television shows.
At age 19, you joined the Roman Catholic Church, considered the priesthood and for years lived a life of celibacy. What changed?
One memorable priest said, “The piano is your altar.” My faith now is in a very different place from what it was. I remain Catholic and still go to Mass on Sundays, but I would find it difficult to affirm so many things now. Things are more complicated than I thought they were as a teenager.
What is “The Final Retreat” about?
It’s about an ordinary parish priest reaching his 60th birthday who has lost his faith — and he’s being blackmailed by a male prostitute. In a complete state of despair, he goes on an eight-day silent retreat. The diary he keeps is the novel, discovered after he dies. We don’t know whether it’s a suicide or a murder, which is the mystery bit of it. The first chapter gives you the clue to what happens in the last chapter.
You’ve written about being gay and how that relates to your music-making and religion. Was there an autobiographical impulse behind your debut novel?
In my teens, I remember a local priest committed suicide in my small town in the north of England. It seemed a tremendous disgrace. People were whispering that maybe he was gay. Well, “queer” was the word then. It has since been reclaimed as a positive word but not back then. That idea of a depressed priest stayed with me. I’ve met many priests over the years and some were very joyful, but others I could see some of this in them.
Were you worried about how to handle the sex in the novel?
It’s quite shocking. The priest does talk about his encounters with different men in cheap flats. And he describes them very graphically and with four-letter words as if he’s kind of throwing out his fist at the world. There are also many tender moments when he’s trying to remember what his faith had been in the past.
Back in the ‘90s, you were known for unusual personal touches in your concert stage attire.
Yes, at one point, I had green shoes. A concert is theater. I like to think there’s an occasion about it, and clothing is part of that. Now I’m in my 50s. I may go back to it, but at the moment I’m wearing patent leather black shoes. Very ordinary.
Have you grown more conservative with age?
In that way, maybe not in other ways. You’re not serving the music by trying to hide away and not have your own sensibility too. I want to bring something of myself to this great music that so many thousands of people have played.
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Stephen Hough with the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet
Where: Bram Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday February 10
Tickets: $45-$95 (subject to change)
Running time: 2 hours (including one intermission)
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