Pianist Benjamin Hochman—“Music is Music”
At 39, Israeli-American pianist Benjamin Hochman is in a good place. The deeply engaging pianist has gained a reputation for excellence, establishing himself on a short list of favorite acts on the New York classical concert scene—a notably tricky space to conquer. Despite his swift arrival to a career at the crossroads of performing and conducting, it has not exactly been a straight-lined journey for Hochman, who, like many other Israeli talents, left his native Jerusalem for the US on a one-way educational ticket, sponsored by AICF. It is fair to say that thanks to the artist’s tenacity and his ability to re-invent the entire course of his action, rather than being defeated by a temporary limitation due to a hand injury—the most common cause for pianists’ unhappy career endings—Hochman was able to expand the radius and depth of his musical world.
Taking time off the bench to train as a conductor made Hochman a better musician. It also helped shape his inquisitiveness for new angles and repertoire, resulting in thoughtfully curated programs that explore music’s depth beyond its core. “In a sense, I am very happy the injury forced me to open up to engage in a new direction within music,” he says, “and it was definitely a combination of things.” He explains, “I have always been fascinated by symphonic and operatic repertoire, and while being trained to be on the path as a pianist, this was my opportunity to redirect my focus.”
After his 2006 New York debut performance at the Metropolitan Museum, and a stretch as a flourishing international presence as soloist and chamber musician, Hochman changed gears. In 2015, with the goal in mind to apply for Juilliard’s conductor course, he arranged for a concert, conducting his friends and colleagues in Beethoven’s 1st Symphony, which fulfilled a request of the course’s application process. Under Hochman’s direction, the successful encounter led to the founding of the Roosevelt Island Symphony, now in its fourth season; its loosely bonded membership consists of a large family of New York’s orchestral and chamber musicians.
“There were only two pupils accepted into the prestigious Juilliard conducting program, which was led by Alan Gilbert and wonderful guest conductors, and it was a fantastic experience for me,” says Hochman. “The depth of knowledge that goes into conducting is mind-boggling. Conducting is about leadership, communication, body language, physical gesture, and a deep knowledge of the score.” Asked about wearing different hats as a pianist and a conductor he says: “Of course, music is music, in a sense. But as a pianist you deal with the instrument, yourself and the music. As a conductor you must lead others, and only a crystal-clear vision will earn you the respect you need for that.”
When we contemplate together the feared image of the authoritative conductor, directing through power trips rather than skill, we both agree, smiling, that this is probably, non-regrettably, a thing of the past. “One has to earn one’s place on the podium. I am not trying to pretend to be someone I am not. Authenticity is a quality I admire, and I believe that others do as well. The more you have to say about the music and the more eloquently you say it, your depth of experience and knowledge will radiate to the players and audience alike. I move my hands—there is no sound.
Before I ask them to play, I must sense and be able to administer each cue in this very direct line of thinking, feeling, and action,” he explains and adds: “similarly to being a soloist at the piano, there is nowhere to hide. You must sing, dream, and imagine when studying the score, but your vision must be crystal clear once you are present. The orchestra can sense very quickly if what you are asking of them is legitimate, based on that vision, or not.”
A recipient of the Bruno Walter Scholarship and Charles Schiff Award, Hochman trained under Gilbert and James Ross and was also appointed musical assistant to Louis Langrée, Thierry Fischer, Paavo Järvi, and Jeffrey Kahane during the 2016 Mostly Mozart Festival, serving as assistant conductor to Leon Botstein for American Symphony’s concerts at Carnegie Hall and Alice Tully Hall, and to Emmanuel Villaume at Juilliard. Following masterclasses with Fabio Luisi, David Zinman, and many others, he was also part of the 2018 Tanglewood Conducting Seminar.
The beauty of being part of both worlds of course translates into his busy touring schedule. Recent and forthcoming conducting engagements include Santa Fe Pro Musica, Orlando Philharmonic, and Orchestra Now, and he just returned as from a solo performance of the Schumann concerto with the Greenwich Symphony under the baton of David Gilbert.
For a new recording on the Avie record label, Hochman recently combined both of his talents, conducting Mozart’s Piano Concertos No.17 in G and No.24 in C Minor, with the English Chamber Orchestra, from the keyboard. “The stylistic insight, elegance, and sparkle of Mr. Hochman’s pianism are beautifully matched by the playing of the orchestra. The finale of the Concerto in G, structured in theme and variations form, is exceptionally inventive: each variation comes as a bit of a surprise,” comments New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini. Hochman points out that his collaboration with the English Chamber Orchestra has been an absolute highlight for him. The debut concerto appearance and also his first recording as a conductor contrast his wide expressive range from the most lyrical in Mozart’s Concerto No. 17 in G major, to the most dramatic and brooding in Concerto No. 24 in C minor. One may think of Barenboim’s take with the same orchestra. Playing the complete cycle of Mozart’s Piano Sonatas, the Concertos came as an organic continuation, bringing the complexity of this multi-faceted musician together.
There is something very personable about his eloquent, intelligent, and serious manner and elegant flair, which translate into artistic integrity on stage. Whether on the podium, at the keyboard in recital, or performing chamber music, Hochman sees himself mostly as a musician, deeply dedicated to the spirit of collaboration, which also becomes a decisive element in his teaching. Once weekly, he holds a studio class as an educator on the faculty of Bard College. He feels that “it’s all about communication, knowing how to get the best results and how to inspire, whether that’s audiences, orchestral collaborators, or students.”
Inspiration, source of discovery and crucial force between skill and aesthetic imagination, may just be the thing Hochman communicates best, making him the artist he is. Whether accumulated throughout his early upbringing, his many encounters with the best in the field, or personal experiences along the way, it has translated into his ability to conquer new things. “There is a Hebrew saying that translates into something like: ‘from bitter comes sweet,’” he says. “Conquering difficult situations gives personal strength and courage to trust yourself. I am deeply grateful that my world has expanded on multiple levels, and I found ways to deepen every experience I encounter,” he says. While learning new repertoire, he likes to delve into the realm of the composer, which could mean learning more about the composer’s musical language, cultural, or national background; for Janáček he even studied a little bit of Czech.
Hochman’s recent odyssey with Mozart’s complete Piano Sonatas has made him think about undertaking a foray into another composer’s cyclic work, and of course there are many contemporary works that fascinate him: “While it’s exciting to premier a new piece, and there is a lot of commissioning happening at the moment, it’s about new composers’ integration into the syllabus. I feel that I have learned to manage a much fuller and varied schedule, going deeper and wider than I would have ever been able to handle before.”
If you did not get your ticket for Jamuary 24th at 8PM yet, it is sold out ! , but there will be an add on performance at 10PM, when Hochman returns to the 92Y for an Inflection Series event, telling two mythical stories in an exciting production of Janáček’s Diary of One Who Disappeared and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 in collaboration with: Lucy Shelton, soprano; Will Ferguson, tenor; Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano; Kathleen O’Mara, soprano; Marie Engle, soprano; Megan Grey, mezzo soprano; Tara Helen O’Connor, flute; Romie de Guise-Langlois, clarinet; Jennifer Frautschi, violin; and Raman Ramakrishnan, cello.