Ian Hobson – multi-tasking between academia and artistry

While in town for his Zankel Hall debut, the English-American pianist, conductor and educator talks about his prolific output and some future projects still in the making.

Upon first sight, Ian Hobson’s tall, commanding stature recalls that of Van Cliburn, the celebrated American pianist of the World War II generation. Fun fact: 28 years Van Cliburn’s junior, Hobson, who only made it into the first round of the Van Cliburn during one of his initial competition trials, was invited back as juror – by personal request of Van Cliburn himself – later in his career. (Photo by Hyeyeon Jung)

Hobson grew up in the small town of Wolverhampton, England during the post-war era. Of his family, only his grandparents owned a TV, and at home, Hobson kept busy reproducing tunes he picked up by ear from the radio on his toy piano. “I was always grateful I learned music by ear first,” he explains. “When I teach memorization, I always emphasize the importance of knowing what the music sounds like; when the notes mean something to you, then you are not surprised by what is coming,” he says.

“In a way, the Zankel Hall concert is a culmination of my recent concert activities in NYC,” explains Hobson, whose cyclical cluster programs have appeared in New York since 2010. In venues like the Dimenna Center and Merkin Hall, and intimate alternatives like the DiCapo Opera Center and Subculture, his multiple week-long programs all focus on specific piano repertoire, aspiring to a complete and comprehensive outlook. His programs have included in-depth juxtapositions of the piano music of Schumann and Chopin, Debussy and Ravel, an entire Brahms cycle, and an investigative comparison between different composers and their application of Preludes, Etudes, and Variations throughout the entire era of the featured format into its contemporary fabric.

Hobson is a proponent of contemporary music, fascinated by the current and the unknown. In fact, his rich recording career, with a notable discography of some 60 releases, reflects this attitude: “That’s what it’s all about!” exclaims Hobson, “the continuum of music.” At Zankel Hall, Hobson premiered Robert Chumbley’s Brahmsiana II with the appreciative composer – a longtime friend of Hobson’s – present.(photo:Ilona Oltuski)

Hobson’s career as a pianist, recording artist, and conductor has always been accompanied by his longtime appointments in academia; for the past ten years he has held the post of Professor of Music at Florida State University, which also presented his Zankel Hall recital honoring the memory of Ernő von Dohnány, whose distinguished music career included a professorship at the university. “Teaching is very important to me,” says Hobson, “I learned from teaching how to play, from playing how to conduct, and from conducting how to both play and teach,” he says and reminiscences: “Perhaps it inhibited my performance career in the traditional sense, but I was always interested in so many things: conducting, teaching, recording, and the founding of my own chamber orchestra,” he explains. “Lately I am even thinking of composing a bit again,” he says, “even though it takes a lot of time and energy. In 1980 I wrote some incidental music for a small production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for chamber ensemble and recently recorded Coventry Casserole, a diabolical satire on the 16th century Coventry Carol.  But while I dream of composing a concerto at one point in my life, I am busy realizing other peoples’work, for now.

“When I grew up, people still prided themselves in music culture, a status that has since eroded in the West,” he says. People flocked to culture, and Hobson traveled to London every couple of weeks for his studies, which required a three-and-a-half-hour steam train journey in each direction. A scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music made Hobson one of their youngest graduates, and after “climbing the pyramid of competitions for a number of years,” it was his first-place win in the 1981 Leeds International Pianoforte Competition that made the way for a career on stage.

Early on, Hobson’s path included performing, recording, conducting, and teaching. Hobson founded the Zephyr label in 1998 with two inaugural releases: El Capitan, John Philip Sousa’s most popular operetta, recorded at the University of Illinois where Sousa himself had been a distinguished visitor and Hobson held the post of Professor of Music; and the 32 Piano Sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven, recorded between 1992 and 1996 at Rice University.

Zephyr’s catalogue has since grown to include vocal music by Poulenc and Schubert with Paul Sperry, Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat and Walton’s Facade with William Warfield, a three-volume series of chamber music, music

by Prince Louis Ferdinand and Schumann on original instruments, new piano music from Scotland, piano transcriptions by Leopold Godowsky, a live performance of French masterpieces by the late Michel Block, and the complete piano concerti of Ignaz Moscheles, among others. “Zephyr was a means to gain control of every aspect of the recording process and to have complete choice in the projects,” he explains.

It was also geared to provide a recording platform for his chamber orchestra, Sinfonia da Camera, a professional chamber orchestra Hobson founded in 1984, affiliated with the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and College of Fine and Applied Arts of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where Mr. Hobson is the Emeritus Swanlund Professor of Music. As the Music Director of the Sinfonia da Camera, he often conducts from the keyboard, and tours throughout the United States and South Korea, where he also holds a professorship at the National University of Seoul.

With all of his engagements, Hobson freely admits to changing his mind about some of the process: “I used to feel I had to do everything in one take, take after take, feeling that the different tries would somehow break the balance of a performance. (photo: Enid Farber)

Then I realized this was not possible or necessary, now I do what it takes to get it right,” he says. Hobson has recently returned from recording Moskovsky in Poland, and is in the process of finalizing his recordings of Bohuslav Martinů’s ballet The Shadow with Sinfonia Varsovia. He also completed the 16th and final disc of his complete Chopin compilation, on his label. Next, Hobson will be starting on a Mendelssohn project, planning to release all of the composer’s piano music over the next year. Just as another example of his seemingly never-ending energy and capacity to produce, recent releases also include the first-ever recording of three concerti by David DeBoor Canfield, solo piano music of Edward Loder and Harold Truscott, and collaborations with Sherban Lupu, Csaba Erdelyi, and Paul Sperry.

Hobson’s widespread engagements have certainly earned him some unconditional praise, especially his interest in performing and recording lesser-known masters in the piano repertoire; often mentioned by fans are Ignaz Moscheles and Johann Hummel.  But while his recent programmatic recitals have been unfailingly lauded for their interesting context, and have garnered admiration for the sheer conglomeration of repertoire, Hobson’s interpretations have also been criticized for their lack of consistency in pianistic execution; despite his remarkable control of the pedal, some find that Hobson’s at times rather mechanical and unnuanced delivery mars his performances’ musical depth and emotional expressiveness.

At Zankel, notoriously blurred passages and a rather pelted approach in the first half of the densely packed program (Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.27 in E-Minor, Op.90, Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, Op.54 , and Schumann’s Sonata No.2 in G-Minor, op.32) seemed to initially confirm the naysayers’ criticism, but just when one almost seemed reduced to submission, things turned around in the second half of the program, especially when it came to Chopin’s Sonata No.3, in B-Minor, Op. 58. A different persona seemed to have entered the stage – the deft and exciting rendering of this hauntingly emotional masterpiece suddenly worked magic over the audience, rich and complete in texture with no missing ingredients. The inspiring momentum carried into his two following bravura encores: Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby, Op. 16, No. 1, and Rachmaninoff’s virtuosic transcription of the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, bringing out all the inner voices, soulful melodic lines, and truly pearly passage-work. His music-making came alive, confirming that Hobson had something more to bring to the piano than encyclopedic punditry.

The performance reminded me of what Hobson said about competitions he frequently adjudicates. “As a jury member I don’t want to hear someone hashing their bets, but to excite me,” he says, “I would be rather willing to except mistakes than a lack of authenticity. And while every generation has a different approach to this authenticity, good piano playing ultimately depends on the personal imagination of the performer.”

This may just be the sound advice expected from ‘Hobson the educator,’ who knows the motivation – but also the struggle – of forging the inspirational path of ‘Hobson the pianist’ first hand.

Ilona Oltuski