Many classical musicians eschew talking about their personal lives. With little public interest in who’s having sex with whom a la Hollywood, pianists, conductors, violinists and the like can often get along without ever having to get into talking about sex or romance.
The gay British pianist Stephen Hough (pronounced “huff”), however, is not shy about such topics. In his new essay collection “Rough Ideas,” (published Feb. 4 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the U.S.) he explores the question of the antiquated phrase, “Is he musical?,” as a euphemism for homosexuality in an age when it was “the love that dare not speak its name.”
He darts around all sorts of topics in short essays such as “Gay pianists: can you tell?,” “Can atonal music make you cry?,” “Is New Age thinking bad for musicians?,” “Authentically playing Rachmaninoff” and dozens more.
In 2018, his debut novel “The Final Retreat,” which he says is full of “very raw sexuality,” explored the gay longings of a middle-aged Catholic priest in seclusion.
All that to say, Hough, 58, is not at all stuffy and balks at no topic. He was slated to be here in mid-April to play a Beethoven piano concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra and present his book at Politics & Prose. That, of course, has been canceled but he was still game to carry on with a previously scheduled Blade interview on March 23.
Hunkered down at his home in central London where he lives with Dennis, his partner of 18 years, Hough was friendly and loquacious waiting out COVID-19. His comments have been edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: How are things in London?
STEPHEN HOUGH: Well this is something you couldn’t have imagined really with everything shutting down the way it has. I was in New York with 9-11 and you know, it was an absolute lifesaver for me being together with friends and now, of course, you can’t do that. You can’t seek that human comfort, so that makes ths really very different. … I think when we come back to normality, we will treasure these things so much.
BLADE: How has it been for you?
HOUGH: Well, it’s two-fold. My concert diary for the next few months has been wiped clean. I get on the computer and it’s all gone blank, all the travel that was planned for concerts. There’s one for China, ironically, that’s still on for June, I don’t know whether or not that will still happen. … But there’s a positive side to it too. As a pianist, you spend most of your life alone practicing so that’s been the same. I think I’ve been more calm because I haven’t had to worry about whether this piece is ready, I’ve got to leave for the airport tomorrow … all those concerns are gone, which is really wonderful. Of course it’s only been a week. Maybe ask me again in a month the same question.
BLADE: What’s the mood like in your neighborhood?
HOUGH: Well, it’s never been this quiet even on Christmas morning. There are very few cars around, nobody is on the streets. … It’s something people haven’t felt since the Soviet Russian times and that’s scary.
BLADE: Do you know anyone who’s succumbed?
HOUGH: No but it’s funny — my partner and I were in Taiwan for Christmas and we came back just before the new year and he thinks he may have had a mild for of it, but that was in early January so we just thought it was the flu.
BLADE: Has your practice had more clarity? Are you more focused?
HOUGH: I think it’s been more concentrated and more joyful. I’ve been practicing some Schubert sonatas and I’ve been overwhelmed by how beautiful the music is. I wouldn’t say in a way that I’ve never felt before, but there’s a purity to it, much like the air in our city. Because there are so few cars around, London feels very fresh and it’s spring.
BLADE: I would be tempted to get lazy. Have you?
HOUGH: So far it’s been OK. I have some writing deadlines for three compositions that I took last year. At first I was thinking I’d have to kill myself to get them done, but now I can do them without having to worry too much. When I’m on holiday, I find it very easy to do literally nothing all day except just read, eat, sleep, repeat.
BLADE: How do you generally know how much to agree to professionally?
HOUGH: It’s very difficult to know if yo’ve got that right. I’m very careful about not dong things at the last minute. When you’re 21, 22 and just starting ot, you say yes to everything because you never know who will ask again. But you come to a point where you take stock a bit and realize you need enough time to prepare a piece. Not just to be able to play it from memory, but truly inhabit it, like an actor with a role in a play.
BLADE: What feedback have you heard so far on “Rough Ideas”?
HOUGH: We’ve had some very nice responses from both people who are musicians and people who have no knowledge of music at all, so it’s very gratifying when that comes back. … This is a book you can give your grandmother, unlike my novel, which was quite different and came out the year before about a priest who’s being blackmailed by a male prostitute.
BLADE: Wow, sounds scandalous.
HOUGH: It’s very scandalous. …. My partner said, “You can’t publish this under your name,” but I said, “No, I’m going to own this book.” It was a topic I’d been wanting to explore — how do you continue to bring comfort to people if you’re a priest and you’ve completely lost your faith?
BLADE: Are you still a practicing Catholic?
HOUGH: I go to Mass but I don’t take communion. I just don’t feel I’m part of it enough to feel good about that, but it’s still a very central part of my life. The teachings — it’s not just about the rich and powerful, but also the widow and the orphan — there’s a wisdom there that very much makes sense to me.
BLADE: How musically sophisticated are Catholics today vs. historically?
HOUGH: I think it’s a very small number. We think about Catholic culture being so great but it was only in the big cathedrals where you might have a Mozart or a Palestrina. In the small parish churches, the music has never been that particularly distinguished. I think the Anglican church has had more of a musical life. There are lots of great cultural things in Catholicism but they were not always very spread out.
BLADE: How did you wind up being a British Catholic?
HOUGH: I converted when I was about 18. I’d grown up in a more evangelical background but I got very bored with those services. … I went to a Mass and there was something about it that appealed to me very deeply. I even explored becoming a priest a few times although I don’t think they’d take me anymore.
BLADE: Whom do you see as the audience for “Rough Ideas”?
HOUGH: Well I hope everyone really, but certainly everyone who has any interest in music and the piano. There’s a lot of stuff in there I think will be helpful and interesting to piano students.
BLADE: Did your views evolve at all as you got them down on paper?
HOUGH: Yes, but I can’t remember now which ones that would be true of. One of the longest essay in there, which was published in a different form in another book of gay essays is about what it means to be Catholic and gay. … I think that one forced me to think though some tough issues.
BLADE: Why, as you touch on in the book, are young people in Asia so much more into classical concerts than elsewhere?
HOUGH: I think it must have to do with parents with the encouragement that kids get at home. Sometimes even being forced into lessons. I think it’s linked to why Asian kids so often do so well at school and university. It’s that support they have. You to to Korea or Taiwan or China and half the audience is under the age of 25. It’s incredible and wonderful. I have a couple of students at Juiliard and it’s interesting to see the lists of the people who get through and the people who don’t. I would say we’re talking 70-80 percent Asian. There’s something very touching about these countries where 200 years ago you wouldn’t have heard a note of Beethoven when he was writing, now they’re playing Beethoven better than the cultures in which it was written.
BLADE: Do you feel things are being dumbed down in the West overall?
HOUGH: Well yes, I think it’s happening everywhere … but I think there’s room for all kinds of music. I’m very uncomfortable with snobbishness in classical music.
BLADE: Yes, but it feels like it’s encroaching on space previously inhabited by the classical arts. You never just see a classical pianist on the Grammy Awards like you used to. If you do, they put Lang Lang with Metallica for some ridiculous stunt casting novelty thing. The Kennedy Center Honors will have one token honoree each year from the fine arts and the rest have become these middling, ’70s popular acts. Doesn’t stuff like this bother you? Again, not saying there’s anything wrong with the popular acts, but they’re encroaching on serious artists.
HOUGH: Well yes, it would be nice if these organizations would support and encourage the classical arts a bit more. I think the Grammys could do more to put some focus on the classical categories without losing anything of what they are.
BLADE: What do you think of the classical crossover acts?
HOUGH: Well, some are better than others.
BLADE: But what does it say about us that the public has such a voracious appetite for this junk while the serious acts will sell just a fraction of what they sell?
HOUGH: I think when you’re a kid, you need to be encouraged and hsown the way a bit and that’s something that’s happening less today in education. We have to find a way to educate people and bring them into this world and let them know this is great music worth making the effort for. On one hand, it doesn’t bother me. I’ve got friends who have no interest in music just as I have no interest in sports. We shouldn’t make people do things or suggest there’s anything wrong with them. … But it’s OK to entice people a bit to enjoy, say, a fine wine when they’ve been drinking something that’s really cheap and nasty. Some of it is about changing the palate. Some of that happens as we mature. Your tastes are usually different at 40 than they were at 20 but we typically need a bit of encouragement for things that are more difficult and classical music can sometimes be difficult. You might have to sit there for an hour vs. listening to a three-minute pop song.
D.C. summer ablaze with events, concerts, art
A plethora of activity in wake of COVID restrictions loosening up
After a year of public events being cancelled and residents staying cooped up in their homes due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the “outside” is finally open and D.C. is effervescing with events. Check out ways to make up for lost time during the remaining months of this year’s summer season:
The Baltimore Museum of Art will open Women Behaving Badly: 400 Years of Power & Protest, an exhibition dedicated to the women who rebelled on Sunday, July 18. The exhibition combines prints, photographs, and books to tell the stories of past heroines and modern trailblazers, celebrating women throughout history who broke rules, transgressed boundaries, and insisted upon recognition of their human rights. For more information, visit the BMA’s website.
Tschabalala Self: By My Self is on view at the BMA through Sept. 19, 2021. Explore 13 paintings and two related sculptures curated by Cecilia Wichmann that reveal artist Tschabalala Self’s depth, intricacy, and singularity. The exhibition explores how the compositional process generates meaning in Self’s work, reflecting her theory of selfhood as a consciousness that is at once produced by external images and by an ongoing reworking and evolving of forms into a new whole. Self was born in Harlem, New York, in 1990 and is based in New Haven, Conn. For more information, visit the BMA’s website.
The 1455 Summer Festival will begin on Thursday, July 15 at 4 p.m., featuring a stellar lineup of literary leaders and creatives (many of whom are part of the LGBTQ community) who will share their insights into the art of storytelling. The lineup will include literary superstar Brian Broome, author of “Punch Me Up to the Gods,” and Booker-Prize-winning author “Shuggie Bain” and fashion designer Douglas Stuart, among others. Some of the festival’s events include “What Makes a Successful (Queer) Narrative?” a panel that’ll dissect queer storytelling throughout the years. There will also be a teen poetry contest with a $5,000 grand prize. For more information, visit the festival’s website.
The National Museum of Asian Art will open Hokusai: Mad about Painting on Saturday, Aug. 28. The exhibition will feature work by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) best known for his iconic woodblock print, “The Great Wave Off the Coast of Kanagawa” and a breathtaking painting titled “Breaking Waves” that was created 15 years after Great Wave at the height of Hokusai’s career. Drawing on the museum’s impressive Hokusai collection, visitors have the opportunity to see a new presentation, with artworks being added throughout the summer. In addition to Breaking Waves, the exhibition includes works large and small, from folding screens and hanging scrolls to paintings and drawings. For more information, visit the NMAA’s website.
Awesome Con will be from Friday, Aug. 20 to Sunday, Aug. 22. The event is D.C.’s own Comic Con, a celebration of geek culture, bringing more than 70,000 fans together with their favorite stars from across comics, movies, television, toys, games, and more. Awesome Con is home to Science Fair, Book Fair, Awesome Con Jr, Pride Alley, a celebration of queer creators and fans curated by GeeksOUT, and Destination Cosplay. For more information, visit awesomecon.com.
The Maryland Renaissance Festival will begin on Saturday, Aug. 28 and runs Saturdays and Sundays and Labor Day Monday through Sunday, Oct. 24 for nine weekends of thrills, feasting, handmade crafts, entertainment and merriment in Crownsville, near Annapolis, Md. The 27-acre Village of Revel Grove comes to life each autumn with more than 200 professional performers on 10 stages, a 3,000 seat arena with armored jousting on magnificent steeds and streets filled with village characters. For more information, visit rennfest.com.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts will be open for special evening hours from Thursday, Aug. 5 to Friday, Aug. 6 from 5-8 p.m. The featured exhibitions are Mary Ellen Mark: Girlhood, which presents images photographer Mary Ellen Mark made throughout her career depicting girls and young women, and Selections from the Collection, which highlights historical and contemporary art by women around the world. Free timed tickets are required so that the museum can ensure the safety of patrons and their staff. Visit their website for more information.
The 13th Annual Ukefest will begin on Friday, Aug. 13. Celebrating a decade dedicated to this small but mighty music maker, UkeFest Artistic Directors Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer return alongside extraordinary instructors like Peter Luongo, Kevin Carroll, Ginger Johnson and more. The program orientation will kick off on Friday night, followed by four days of classes and evening events. For those looking for more intensive skill development, Strathmore’s UkeFest is the only program of its kind that offers an advanced track. Admission is $225 and more information is available at Strathmore.org.
The Drive-In at Union Market will start at 7:30 p.m. every first Friday of the month through October. While watching films under the stars, enjoy dozens of local, regional, and international foods: Egyptian favorites by Fava Pot, night market noodles from Som Tam, ice cream locally churned by The Creamery, tasty takeout burgers from Lucky Buns and more. Movie audio will be transmitted through an FM transmitter on the radio and through speakers placed on Neal Place. All movies are shown with open captioning, and the movie plays rain or shine. Each showing costs $20 per car. For more information, visit unionmarketdc.com.
Unwind with an hour-long vinyasa outdoor yoga session taught by District Flow Yoga every Tuesday and Thursday on District Pier and every Sunday morning on Recreation Pier at The Wharf. Enjoy waterfront views and fresh air as you shed the stress of the day or greet the new one. The outdoor yoga class on Sunday, July 25 is hosted on Recreation Pier from 9-10 a.m. and costs $10. Tickets must be purchased on Eventbrite. For more information, visit wharfdc.com.
FUTURES, the first building-wide exploration of the future on the National Mall, will open in the late summer and run through summer 2022. This exhibition is your guide to a vast array of interactives, artworks, technologies, and ideas that are glimpses into humanity’s next chapter. Smell a molecule. Clean your clothes in a wetland. Meditate with an AI robot. Travel through space and time. Watch water being harvested from the air. Become an emoji. The FUTURES is yours to decide, debate, delight. Patrons are encouraged to dream big, and imagine not just one future, but many possible futures on the horizon—playful, sustainable, inclusive. Visit the Arts and Industries Building’s website for more information.
The National Portrait Gallery will open “Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands” on Friday, Aug. 27. Hung Liu (b. 1948) is a contemporary Chinese American artist, whose multilayered paintings have established new frameworks for understanding portraiture in relation to time, memory, and history. Often sourcing her subjects from photographs, Liu elevates overlooked individuals by amplifying the stories of those who have historically been invisible or unheard. More information is available at the gallery’s website.
After a long COVID drought, music is back! The 9:30 Club has a schedule of shows starting in September, notably the return of the Bob Mould Band on Sept. 18 at 6 p.m. (tickets are $25 and still available). Tinashe performs her “333Tour” on Oct. 3 (tickets on sale July 16). Visit 930.com for the full schedule and hurry, because many shows are already selling out.
Meanwhile, at I.M.P.’s Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, more shows are headed our way, including James Taylor and his All-Star Band on Aug. 10. Wilco and Sleater-Kinney perform Aug. 20. For more throwback fixes, New Kids on the Block are slated for Aug. 4 and Alanis Morissette with Garbage and Liz Phair play on Aug. 31. Visit merriweathermusic.com for the full lineup.
Wolf Trap has a full schedule of events planned this summer as well. Highlights include Renee Fleming on Aug. 6, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts on Aug. 12, and ABBA the Concert on Aug. 15. Visit wolftrap.org for the full schedule.
Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington celebrates 40th anniversary with virtual concert, retrospective
Veteran choir soldiers undeterred through pandemic with Zoom rehearsals
GMCW Turns 40
Streaming begins Saturday, June 5 at 7 p.m.
Available through June 20
Discussion of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington quickly becomes emotional for its members both veteran and newbie(-ish). They’re the kind of strong feelings that only exist when one has sacrificed and invested in something.
“It’s an experience that touches our soul in a way that not that many LGBTQ+ people get to experience,” says tenor Javon Morris-Byam, a gay 28-year-old music teacher who joined three years ago. “We have music tying us together and in the end, we make a product that we can share with the public and that’s a humbling experience.”
Steve Herman, 79, is a founding member, though he doesn’t sing. One of a group of “non-singing members,” he joined in June 1981 and has helped over the decades painting scenery, designing ads, serving on the board and more. His partner at the time had joined the chorus as a singer.
Now retired after 47 years in the federal government, he says the Chorus “has been a major centerpiece of my life.”
“This may sound corny, but I couldn’t imagine my life without the chorus,” Herman says.
The chorus is celebrating its 40th anniversary this weekend with a streaming concert simply dubbed “GMCW turns 40” that can be streamed starting Saturday, June 5 at 7 p.m. and can be viewed until June 20.
Selections will include “From Now On” (from “The Greatest Showman”), “Rise Up,” “Make Them Hear You” (from “Ragtime”), “Truly Brave” and a new song called “Harmony’s Never Too Late!” written for the occasion by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, composers of “Ragtime.” Video clips of past performances will also be included in a montage. Tickets are $25 at gmcw.org.
Thea Kano, the Chorus’s artistic director since 2014 (she was associate director for a decade prior), says “Make Them Hear You” has “kind of become our anthem over the last 10 years,” so contacting its composers for a commission made sense. They premiered it last summer virtually at the Chorus’s Summer Soiree, a COVID-induced postponement of its usual Spring Affair.
Kano, a straight ally, directs the Chorus with aid from Associate Conductor C. Paul Heins, Assistant Conductor Joshua Sommerville and accompanist Teddy Guerrant. Justin Fyala has been the Chorus’s executive director since 2016. Staff also includes Craig Cipollini (director of marketing), Kirk Sobell (director of patron services) and Alex Tang (accompanist).
Under the main Chorus umbrella are five ensembles: 17th Street Dance, a 14-member performance troupe started in 2016; Rock Creek Singers, a 32-voice chamber ensemble; GenOUT Youth Chorus, a teen choir of about 25; Potomac Fever, a 14-member harmony pop ensemble; and Seasons of Love, a 24-voice gospel choir.
Musically, the Chorus’s repertoire is eclectic.
“(We sing) everything from spiritual to glam rock to punk to traditional classical, and everything in between,” Morris-Byam says. “I love when the chorus is all together and able to produce a big powerful sound.”
Kano says working with Fyala is “a dream” and says under his leadership the Chorus is “in a very healthy financial place, which is wonderful and a very humble thing to be able to say right now particularly given that we’re in a pandemic — that’s not the case with a lot of arts organizations.”
The D.C. Chorus is a quasi-unofficial spin off of its San Francisco counterpart. During an early ’80s national tour, the San Francisco group performed at Washington’s Kennedy Center and had a profound effect on local audiences. Marsha Pearson, a straight woman who lived in Dupont Circle at the time and enjoyed hanging out with gay men, was one such person.
“I couldn’t believe we didn’t have one of these,” she told the Blade 10 years ago for a story on the Chorus’s 30th anniversary. “I thought, ‘We’re the nation’s capital, how come we don’t have this?’”
She hand wrote fliers — four to a sheet — had her sister photocopy them at her office, cut them up by hand and passed them out at Capital Pride in 1981. Accounts vary about how many showed up to the first practice at the long-defunct gay community center (no connection to the D.C. Center) on Church Street. Pearson remembers about 30. Others say it was more like 15-ish. It was June 28, 1981 and, by all accounts, an innocuous beginning.
Pearson never sang with the group — it was exclusively a men’s chorus. She asked if anybody had any conducting experience. The late Jim Richardson did and became the first director.
“I still remember the first chord,” Pearson told the Blade in 2011. “It was just a simple thing, you know, like do, mi, so, do, but I just got goosebumps. I was just elated that even one note came out, I was so excited. I got those same goosebumps at the anniversary concert last weekend. I put their CDs on and I get the same thing, especially on certain things they sing. You just can’t believe it sounds so great.”
COVID has, of course, wreaked havoc on the operation. Thankfully, Kano says, no members have died from it, though a handful (she says fewer than 10 that she knows of), including Kano, have had it and recovered.
The Chorus continued its Sunday evening rehearsals via Zoom, which, because of the precision required for musical performance, was tougher to take online than, say, a business meeting. It never occurred to the Chorus leadership to take a hiatus.
“I look back now like, ‘Why didn’t we take some time off,’ but I think off the top of my head at the time it was like, “We sing and we’re a social justice organization and community is such a big part of who we are,’” Kano says. “And so for suddenly, with no notice, to have something that we love so much and are so passionate about …. to suddenly just turn the lights off, that wasn’t even an option.”
With the Chorus and dancers and GenOUT, there are about 200 current volunteer performers. It’s been slightly higher at times. Some were deterred by the thought of rehearsing via Zoom although some former members no longer in the D.C. area — even a few overseas — rejoined when virtual participation became possible.
The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement last summer and beyond was a galvanizing event. The Chorus responded with its “Let Freedom Sing” concert, which Kano says celebrated the intersection of Black and LGBTQ people.
“It was our way of saying we raise our voice in solidarity with those facing injustice,” Kano says.
But does that get messy at times? Surely not everyone in a choir of this size is on the same page politically, even in a progressive city like D.C., right?
As a nonprofit, the Chorus avoids anything ostensibly political. Kano says the issue did arise when they were invited to sing at a Virginia-based gun-reform event last year. They participated, but carefully.
“So anytime you mentioned guns, it becomes political,” Kano says. “It’s not about whether or not we support the Second Amendment. It’s us standing in solidarity with those who have been victims of gun violence.”
Kano says there’s “a very good chance had this been a non-pandemic year,” they would have been invited to sing at the Biden-Harris inauguration, which she says they “absolutely” would have agreed to.
“We did wonder, though, a few years ago what we would have said if 45 were to ask us,” she says. “We didn’t spend a lot of time on it because we knew that wasn’t gonna happen,” she says with a chuckle.
Herman says performing at big, pro-LGBTQ “statement”-type events is woven into the Chorus’s history and is understood.
“Every Christmas Eve, we’d sing for the patients at NIH,” he says. “We still do, only then it was primarily AIDS patients. We sang special concerts when the (AIDS) Quilt was first displayed and when there was a March on Washington. We did a lot of community work and outreach at a time when it was really needed.”
Morris-Byam says even today, with so much progress having been made, the Chorus still is needed. He, by the way, calls Kano “one of the most brilliant musicians I’ve ever met.”
“I believe the Chorus is a strong political statement in itself,” he says. “When we’re making a strong, joyful noise, it’s celebrating everything we are, what we can be, and everyone who has gotten us where we are.
There have been challenges over the years — finding new office space, patching together individual vocal parts for virtual performances — but no warring factions. Kano is, by most accounts, extremely well liked.
The future, Kano says, is bright. She hopes to resume in-person rehearsals in the fall. She spent a big chunk of early lockdown transcribing a Puccini “Gloria Mass” for tenor/bass chorus. She plans to program it with works by Cole Porter eventually.
Ultimately, Kano says, her goals for the Chorus are about making great art.
“Art comes first,” she says. “Because that’s how we deliver our mission. And if we put great art first, it’s going to attract great people. It’s going to both as members and as audience members and patrons, and therefore it’s going to attract great funding, and then all that goes right back into the arts we can further our expansion and our ability to get the mission out.”
Billy Porter talks about his HIV diagnosis and keeping secrets
The Tony, Emmy, and Grammy-Award winning actor revealed the secret he’s been keeping for 14 years in the Hollywood Reporter Wednesday
NEW YORK – Daytime talk show host Tamron Hall welcomed Broadway icon and star of the hit tv show “Pose,” Billy Porter on her show that aired Wednesday. The Tony, Emmy, and Grammy-Award winning actor revealed the secret he’s been keeping for 14 years that was made public in a piece for the Hollywood Reporter published Wednesday.
Porter discusses his HIV diagnosis from over a decade ago which the actor said he felt a sense of shame that compelled him to hide his condition from his castmates, collaborators and even his mother, and the responsibility that now has him speaking out. “The truth is the healing,” Porter said.
“I was on the precipice of obscurity for about a decade or so, but 2007 was the worst of it. By February, I had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. By March, I signed bankruptcy papers. And by June, I was diagnosed HIV-positive,” he wrote. “The shame of that time compounded with the shame that had already [accumulated] in my life silenced me, and I have lived with that shame in silence for 14 years. HIV-positive, where I come from, growing up in the Pentecostal church with a very religious family, is God’s punishment,” the actor wrote.
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