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Coffee Conversation: Pianist Benjamin Hochman

by Angela Sutton

Benjamin Hochman, pianist

On Tuesday evening I sat down with the excellent pianist (and one of the nicest people you're likely ever to meet) Benjamin Hochman to discuss his upcoming concert at SubCulture on Monday, March 10, among other musical subjects. Monday's program features four sets of contemporary variations, including Luciano Berio's Five Variations; Oliver Knussen's Variations, Op. 24; the newly commissioned Frederic Variations by the Israeli-American composer Tamar Muskal; and the massive Rzewski work The People United Will Never Be Defeated.

To be strictly accurate, this was a tea/beer conversation—too late in the day for coffee! Nonetheless, here are a few highlights:

On the Construction of the Program: The program is built around the Rzewski set, which I have wanted to play for some time. Since SubCulture is a modern space, it made sense to add contemporary variation sets [the Berio and Knussen works]. And, finally, I wanted a commissioned work [the Frederic Variations]. Tamar is a friend and compatriot, and I had previously played her trio.


On the SubCulture Space: Since it's a small and less formal space, it breaks barriers that you have in larger spaces; people can go to the bar and get a drink, for example. And the piano sounds great. It's a Steinway B, which is the right size for the hall.

On Contrasts Between the Works: Berio and Knussen definitely form one group—they are more "European" and "abstract," as opposed to Rzewski, who could be considered more "American" or "popular." Within those two, though, the Berio, in my mind, leans toward Beethoven: it is structured, and the five variations form an "arch," expressive and improvisational. Overall it is like a fantasy. Knussen leans towards Brahms, it is more tonal, more tightly constructed, and immutable—you can’t move a note.

The Rzewski is the big work, almost an hour, and has many levels of meaning and many entry points. It is encyclopedic: including jazz, popular song, and serialist music. I've been playing this piece in recitals recently, and it always draws powerful reactions. The political content [it is based on the Chilean resistance song of the same name] is, to me, just another point of entry.

The Frederic Variations are closer to Rzewski, but have their own language that is not like anything else. Tamar's work is very dense and passionate; and, these variations are based on the second Nouvelle etude, which is one of the most beautiful Chopin pieces.

On Preparing the Variations: The challenge is to reach the language of each set, so that they are comprehensible, "fully cooked," and properly demonstrate their diversity. I also like working with living composers. I had a three-hour rehearsal with Tamar, and I could say, "can you sing this for me?" and find out what she is thinking. The score is only an outline after all; with contemporary music, nothing is set in stone.

I have given parts of this program six or seven times now. When I play, I am trying to emulate my ideal performance.

In addition to Monday's program, Benjamin is, in his words, "carrying a lot of rep." Recent appearances have included both Brahms concertos (!), a Mozart concerto with Riverside Symphony here in New York City, and in addition to the variation sets in recent recitals, Beethoven's Sonata, Op. 110. Future appearances will feature (among other things) the Brahms Handel Variations, works by Janáček, a premiere of a Kaija Saariaho piano trio, and an upcoming recital in New Mexico featuring the Bach partitias and works by Luigi Dallapicola. A lot of rep, indeed: Chances are, wherever you are in the U.S., Benjamin will be playing something interesting near you pretty soon.

Monday's program begins at 7:30 p.m., and tickets start at $30.