Ben Hopkins

TUESDAY, December 3, 2019

We met a long time ago…

I got to know Ben for the first time when he was still in his teens. He already had an unusual relationship to the piano, starting out on a digital piano and largely without typical formal instruction, but he was very curious, already a born autodidact. No one else I’ve known has ever succeeded as a performer of traditional piano music after such an informal connection to really solid traditional teaching, but once he started “mainstreaming” he took off like a shot, and now at age 30 the evolution is obviously quite extraordinary. He presently not only plays on an astonishingly high level, he also thinks much more deeply than most about his musical goals  because of having started on the formal journey later.

Most traditional pianists today are hot-housed from age five or so, and they function more like magnificently trained idiot savants than as mature, thoughtful musicians. The result is very very impressive on a superficial level, but for me something really important is missing; the extra special inspiration that comes from a lifetime of investigation, experimentation, composing, arranging and teaching.

What Ben does in my opinion goes far beyond what is taught and comes from thinking beyond what is conventional, and searching within himself for  answers that we can never get from anyone but else ourselves.

Something that is not nearly as popular as it should be…

I think this one movement from the Brahms Third Sonata, as played by Ben here, is as well performed as any other version I’ve heard from very famous players. I don’t only want to present famous people here in this Spotlight, and sometimes those we have barely heard of, if at all, are doing amazing things that unfortunately get far too little attention.

The Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5…

Brahms wrote this in 1853 and it was published the following year. It is a is massive work in five movements, and I have some severe reservations about the whole composition. First of all, Brahms wrote for piano in an extremely awkward manner, meaning that he penned things that are nearly impossible for the best players on the planet to pull off.  As we struggle to master his music it’s easy to come off sounding just adequate even when we play the music very well. And when things do not go well we may sound like rank amateurs to the listener, who has no idea how impossible the music is. This is why I do not usually teach Brahms and have rarely played his solo piano music. It’s asking for trouble. On our best days we tend to get lukewarm applause, and when things are not perfect, we can expect a cold response from people who have no idea what we have attempted to pull off.

But this one piece, this one movement, both sounds wonderful and is very well written. If it had been written as an impromptu, or a ballade, or a fantasy, it would be programmed perhaps 50 times as often. However, most “concert pianists” are rather cowardly about breaking tradition, and tradition says: “Thou shalt not play part of a sonata.” And so generation after generation of “classical pianists” continue to follow tradition like sheep, never daring to break rules. Because of this, many gems do not get the playing time they deserve. They are permanently linked to larger works and thus are not heard enough. My argument has been that traditional performers lack common sense about programming and have no idea how to package music to draw in new listeners. This would be a great composition to hear more often, as a stand alone piece or part of a group of two or three pieces by Brahms that are very well contrasted.

Now, Ben’s performance…

5+

3 thoughts on “Ben Hopkins

  1. Wonderful playing that says something – the music says something, and that isn’t always the case. I also learned a lot about Brahms and piano, and this sonata in particular. I agree that the “thou shalt not” regarding sonata movements does not make sense. If it’s a musical unit, why not let it be performed as a unit?

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  2. He sounds wonderful. Crystal clear.

    And this is really what Spotlight is for, right? The young talent that none’s heard of.

    But those who have heard go O.O

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