Music For Writers: Benjamin Hochman, Translator — And ‘A Bit Of A Shaman, Too’

Image - Hiroyuki Ito, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Image – Hiroyuki Ito, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

‘At The Piano…Even Dreams’

The very first notes of the album arrive like an abrupt, sonic question mark: “What can we do with this little perplexed phrase?”

The burly Scottish composer Oliver Knussen certainly knew what to do with his exquisitely moody 1989 Variations on just six notes.

And happily, it’s Israeli-born pianist Benjamin Hochman at the keyboard. You find few artists whose touch could be more sensitive and yet assertive in this clever opening of his new album Variations from Avie Records.

Thanks to New York Public Radio’s contemporary classical stream Q2 Music, you can hit the player above and listen to the full CD free of charge during itsAlbum of the Week run.

Pianist Hochman has created his entire album around variations — one, the Brahms at the end, comes from the late classical era, while the others are from our time, our tensions, our tonalities. It’s a gratifying concept for a CD that leaves you admiring Hochman for the range of interpretive intelligence he brings to five very different composers’ creative voices.

And that’s where I began our interview.

‘The Brahms is the work I have lived with the longest’

Thought Catalog: Let me start by asking whether your own interpretive voice is naturally closer to one or another of the idioms represented here? The distance from Brahms to Berio, alone, is no short haul, and your capability in each of these stylistic constructs makes me wonder if there’s one composer with whom you might feel most comfortable?

Benjamin Hochman
Benjamin Hochman

Benjamin Hochman: In this album, I wanted to group together some beautiful piano works that happen to be in variation form. The innate versatility of the form has proven to be a natural draw for composers of all eras, and in the last century or so in particular, composers of greatly contrasting styles have used this form as a canvas for their distinctive musical ideas.

What I loved about preparing, performing and recording this project was both the cohesiveness of the concept and the freedom provided by each composer’s individual idiom.

My relationship with each composer and work on this recording has its own story and trajectory. Each encounter with the music creates impressions that eventually build an interpretation: practice sessions, performances, time spent thinking about the music at the piano and away from it, even dreams.

The Brahms is the work I have lived with the longest: I learned it as a teenager and performed it in my very first concert in America, as a student at the Curtis Institute of Music. I love Brahms’ music and have played quite a lot of it: his Händel Variations are a true masterpiece that I enjoy coming back to time and again.

With the three living composers represented here, my experience meeting them personally was very meaningful.

TC: You’ve met Knussen?

BH: I attended a rehearsal of Oliver Knussen conducting the Curtis Symphony and was immediately impressed by his incisive, clear and commanding approach to music. This led me to explore his oeuvre and eventually to his Piano Variations. The combination of tightly coiled energy, playfulness and colorful use of the piano is very appealing to me.

TC: And George Benjamin?

BH: When I was a student at the Marlboro Music Festival in 2001, George Benjamin was composer-in-residence: he conducted his own music and even improvised late one evening on the piano to provide music for a silent movie. His refined, sophisticated music speaks to me very much. Meditation on Haydn’s Name is beautiful, gentle and flowing, with an improvisatory flair.

TC: And Peter Lieberson.

BH: That same summer at Marlboro, I heard an unforgettable and revelatory performance given by the great singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and the wonderful pianist Peter Serkin. The program included Peter Lieberson’s Rilke Songs, which I absolutely loved. I got to know more of his music and liked it so much that after receiving the Avery Fisher Career Grant [in 2011], I asked him to write a piano concerto for me. Unfortunately, he was very ill, and did not live to write the piece. I did have the pleasure of spending an afternoon with him and his wife Rinchen in Tel Aviv, where he was receiving experimental treatment at a hospital: I really enjoyed spending this brief time with him.

I have played a few of his works, and when I learned that his Piano Variations – written in 1996 for the fantastic pianist Emanuel Ax and premiered at Lincoln Center — had never been recorded, I felt compelled to do it myself. Lieberson’sVariations are perhaps the most immediately accessible on first hearing of the contemporary works on this recording, without sacrificing depth and sophistication. The synthesis of disparate musical styles — jazz and popular music, folk materials, a crunchy and acerbic modernist harmonic language, a vivid imagination, and the Buddhist concepts embedded in this piece — make it richly satisfying.

TC: How about Luciano Berio?

BH: I never met Berio [who died in 2003] but have always loved his music, which is both brilliant and deeply human. His Cinque Variazioni is an early work and the oldest of the contemporary pieces on this recording. It was composed in 1953 and revised in 1966. It’s so atmospheric and full of character: alternately funny, furious and visionary.

Read More

There’s more: Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son

Writing on the Ether: Music For Writers: Benjamin Hochman, Translator — And ‘A Bit Of A Shaman, Too’

Originally published by Thought Catalog at



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