All about Mozart

Benjamin Hochman will perform the full cycle of Mozart piano sonatas over the next 8 months.

Benjamin Hochman  (photo credit: JUERGEN FRANK)
Benjamin Hochman
(photo credit: JUERGEN FRANK)
Benjamin Hochman has a penchant for Mozart. Indeed, the US-resident, Jerusalem-born pianist is certainly not alone in that particular following. But, unlike most of us, he can put his love for the Austrian composer’s oeuvre to good, creative and sonorous use.
Over the next 8 months, he will perform the full cycle of Mozart piano sonatas here, all 18 of them, plus the odd fantasia, rondo and adagio. Hochman will spread the sonata run over five dates at the Israel Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv, with the first two concerts taking place there on December 23 and 25 (both 8:30 p.m.), featuring 8 sonatas and Fantasy in C minor. The last three performances have been set for August 2020. The current Israeli project follows the release, a couple of months ago, of recordings of Mozart’s Concerto no. 17 in G major and Concerto no. 24 in C minor, together with the English Chamber Orchestra.
He has also performed with many of the world’s leading ensembles, including the New York Philharmonic and the American Symphony Orchestra – the latter marked his Carnegie Hall debut – Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and our very own Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Hochman says the Mozart sonata initiative has been brewing for some time. “I have always felt close to the music of Mozart, and have studied and performed so much of his music over the years,” he notes. “I had the idea to focus more deeply on a composer and a body of work and this felt like a natural choice for me. I feel that the beauty and depth of Mozart’s music is quite unique. It approaches perfection.”
He also says he was keen to offer the format in question a bit of a marketing platform. “In some way, the piano sonatas are underrated. Because they use a smaller canvas compared to, for example, the piano concertos, they require a different kind of care and focus. Some of the sonatas are very well known while others are almost never heard in concert halls. So there is a particular satisfaction for me to explore this cycle and present it to the public.”
For Hochman there is more to his artistry than “just” placing his fingers on the keyboard. He says he likes to do his background research, about the person behind the quill, and draws on his accrued knowledge of the scene in general. “I am certainly interested to know as much as I can about the composer and the composer’s works. When I play the Mozart sonatas, my interpretations are very much informed not only by my study, practice, and performance of those specific works, but also by my experience and knowledge of chamber music, concertos, symphonies, operas etc.”
CLASSICAL MUSICIANS are not normally known for their ability to improvise on scores – even though the likes of Bach and Handel left plenty of room for maneuver in their charts – but Hochman feels there is still ample opportunity for self-expression in his line of work. “For me, the information provided in the score is of paramount importance – but it is only the starting point. To paraphrase a saying I heard once from a great musician: one of the biggest paradoxes in music is that the more you follow the score, the more freedom you have.”
While that may sound a little contradictory with classical music it is, of course, very much about the technique, spirit and personal baggage the performer brings to his or her live work. Hochman says his job is to convey the beauty of the composer’s writing, in his own individual way. “The music is 100% Mozart. But when I perform it in real time, I am bringing it to life in a way which is totally unique and will never be the same, before or after.”
Hochman believes there is added accumulative enjoyment and appreciation value in listening to the sonatas in a sequential manner. “I think that hearing the cycle in its entirety gives a greater awareness of the rich variety within this body of works. The effect is subtle but deep.” The 39-year-old pianist also points out that, as the sonatas were created over a period of years, they also serve as reference points for various personal and artistic junctures through the composer’s brief time on terra firma. “One also becomes aware of the remarkable trajectory of Mozart’s creative life, from the early sonatas to the late, a fact all the more remarkable given that he only lived to be 35.”
Hochman chose the order of the performances here carefully, citing various logistical, technical and continuum considerations he had to weigh up before settling on the schedule. “I wanted to share this project with the public in Israel since it has been a major artistic endeavor of mine over the last couple of years. I chose to present the cycle not in chronological order but rather in five distinct programs. Each program has a variety of works from different periods of Mozart’s life. I also take into consideration the length of each sonata, as well as its key, character, form. The goal is to create a flow within each program, and generate interest for each individual program as well as the entire cycle.”
Bending the format framework a mite, the pianist feels, was a given. “Including the Fantasies, Rondo, Adagio etc. is important because they provide variety of form and expression. They are also incredible, unique works that are too beautiful to exclude.”
While Hochman is best known for pianistic endeavor, he also manages some baton wielding dates on occasion. “As a 20-year-old student at the Curtis Institute of Music [in Philadelphia] I took an introductory class to conducting. But my first real experience conducting was assembling a group of my friends and colleagues for a performance of Beethoven Symphony No. 1 in 2015.”
SINCE THEN, he has enjoyed several conducting berths, which he feels helps to expand his artistic horizons, offers him a better understanding of the task in hand and actually influences the way he approaches his principal instrument. “I believe my experience as a conductor very much informs my piano playing. I have a broader frame of reference now, I know more music, have experienced more within music, and see and hear things from different perspectives. In the case of solo playing that might mean imagining orchestral colors within the piano writing, or uncovering parallels and associations between solo and orchestral repertoire of the same composer or period. In terms of ensemble playing, I have a better understanding of when to lead and when to follow, how to listen more closely, and how to communicate more clearly and effectively.”
Hochman says that, while he does not have much in the way of professional DNA, the sounds he now appreciates as a celebrated globe-trotting practitioner were always around. He also notes that Lady Luck also had a hand in his eventual career choice. “I come from a family of music lovers rather than professional musicians. I came to classical music almost by chance at first. I was taught to play a few tunes by a woman who was looking after me when I was a child. She suggested to my parents that I take music lessons, and the rest is history... ”
He has also has had the good fortune to benefit from the wisdom and professional experience of some top educators along the way. “I have had so many powerful musical influences throughout my life and to this day. But I credit first of all my principal teachers who gave so much of themselves and have really shaped the musician that I am: [now 89-year-old Haifa-born] Esther Narkiss,
[Lithuanian-born pianist] Emanuel Krasovsky, [late German-born American pianist] Claude Frank and [American pianist] Richard Goode. In conducting, which came much later, [52-year-old American conductor and violinist] Alan Gilbert was a very important teacher for me.” Goode is best known for his interpretations of works by Mozart and Beethoven, so that must have been an inspired educator choice for Hochman.
Although Hochman has lived most of his life elsewhere he says he tries to get over here as frequently as he can, and is always delighted to entertain us with his developing keyboard skills. “I perform in Israel regularly and it is always very meaningful to me. Although I have now resided elsewhere for many years, Israel remains my home and it is important for me to maintain strong ties here.”
For tickets and more information: (03) 546-6228 and