When you think of a pianist’s Kennedy Center debut, names such as Schubert and Rachmaninoff tend to come to mind. Benjamin Hochman, however, is part of a generation of musicians who are moving past the received wisdom and finding their own ways to approach tradition — much to the gratitude of audiences delighted to hear fresh takes and fresh pieces when they’re presented in capable hands.
It’s true that Hochman’s concert Saturday afternoon at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, included Brahms (the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel). But the two other classic composers on the program are both alive: Frederic Rzewski and Oliver Knussen. (In what may be a WPAS first, the organization’s chief executive and president, Jenny Bilfield, mentioned in her pre-concert remarks that Knussen is coming to town in April for a residency at the Library of Congress. That’s the first time in many years that a WPAS leader has plugged another organization’s concerts before the curtain, rather than simply highlighting its own.)
The program, too, had a theme beyond simply showcasing a gifted young pianist. It was entirely devoted to variations, from Knussen’s seven-minute “Variations for Piano,” written for Peter Serkin, to Rzewski’s towering, hour-long “The People United Will Never Be Defeated,” a contemporary staple since Ursula Oppens gave it its world premiere on another WPAS program back in 1976 — also for the Hayes piano series. (Oppens happens to be coming to the Library of Congress in a couple of weeks, too, which is another concert you should mark on your calendars.)
Variations are a popular form — Hochman called it “primal” in his remarks to the audience — but they’re not necessarily easy to pull off, particularly three sets one after another. They require a particular kind of concentration from performer and listener, following the thread of the theme through a range of permutations, from one extreme to another, showcasing the composer’s ability, the performer’s virtuosity — and, often, a massive journey through a sea of shifting identities until the theme, often, returns, sometimes seeming bare or sandblasted after the odyssey through which it has been, depositing the listener back on the shores of reality. To go through three such journeys in one afternoon is a considerable challenge — more of a challenge, indeed, than Hochman made it seem in his urbane and masterful rendition.
Hochman is clearly a thinking pianist; this was a program with a lot of meat to it. That can be a coded way to indicate “not virtuosic,” but Hochman is very virtuosic, indeed — it’s just that virtuosity seems for him a true byproduct, a means of accessing music that interests him.
That was clear right from the start, when he made the Knussen variations sound easy and simple, flowing up and down the keyboard with a kind of hypnotic facility, even though each is written in a different meter and the music is so complex that the score is sometimes notated over three or four staves instead of the usual two.
“Thinking pianist” can also be code for a cerebral approach, and that isn’t Hochman, either. He excelled at finding the narrative through-line in his long-form variations. His Brahms was colorful and engaging while remaining crisp and clean-cut, the Handelian character overpowering what became, in his hands, at best a thin veneer of romanticism.
But the afternoon’s tour de force was the Rzewski. This piece is a full concert program in itself, moving through a range of styles and emotions, a kaleidoscopic reflection of the Chilean protest song that forms its theme, as much a manifesto as a stylistic exercise. Hochman led the audience through this rugged, majestic landscape with such rhetorical authority that there was no hint of movement among his listeners when he paused between sections. The minute he was done, the audience launched immediately into ovations — not always the norm for a contemporary work.