Boston Conservatory Alum Kristhyan Benitez Earns His Second Latin Grammy Nomination

In this Q&A, the pianist speaks from the heart about his commitment to Latin American music and blending cultural influences to "create bigger universes."

October 6, 2023

In 2021, Boston Conservatory alum Kristhyan Benitez (G.P.D. '10, A.D. '15, piano) won a Latin Grammy Award in the Best Classical Album category for his passion project, a lyrical collection of solo piano works by lesser-known Latin American composers. Earning the recognition for this particular repertoire felt especially gratifying for Benitez, a concert pianist originally from Venezuela, who has built an enviable, international career as a soloist and recording artist while remaining a steadfast advocate for cultural representation in the classical music world. 

Just two years after his win for Latin American Classics, Vol. 1, Benitez has been nominated again in the same category, this time for Afro-Cuban Dances, which showcases compositions by the Cuban composer and pianist Ernesto Lecuona, as well as Lecuona's sister and teacher, Ernestine. 

Throughout his years of study at the Conservatory, Benitez worked closely with Professor Michael Lewin, a fellow Steinway Artist and Grammy winner. "The way that I learned to be myself and be free was actually through him," Benitez says. "And I really thank him." Lewin, for his part, speaks with obvious admiration for the artist Benitez has become. "Kristhyan plays with an intense physicality and huge emotional commitment, combining poetry, real individualism, tremendous virtuosity, and charisma," Lewin says. 

Congratulations on your most recent Latin Grammy nomination. Is it just as exciting the second time?

Oh my god, yes. I cried so much the second time—even more than the first time. And it was really unexpected. There's a little thing where you think, "Okay, maybe that was luck." But then when it happens the second time, there's some reassurance that everything you're doing is totally worth it. It's been a long journey because you grow up with this kind of prejudice, that pieces from Latin America are baby pieces, are short, are not complex; or that you should only play Brahms or Schumann—which I adore, and I always play them—but this music also needs that space. 

For some people, when you try to add Latin American repertoire to standard repertoire in a concert recital, people think, "Oh, those little things." But there's a huge world inside. 

Tell us more about the world of Afro-Cuban Dances, which is your second album to feature all Latin American compositions.

The main part of the album is the Afro-Cuban Dances Suite by Ernesto Lecuona, which was actually the first work by a classical composer to add African elements into classical music. The main thing that he's bringing, rhythmically, is the drums. And, the other element—which I found very important—is that he's trying to expose people to the culture of carnival. During carnival, everyone—indigenous, Spaniard, African—they were all together, celebrating music. The way they were dancing was through the congas, through the claves, all of that. And [Lecuona] was daring to include these elements. Even though, as Latin Americans, we're a mix of cultures—we have the Spaniard part, the indigenous part, and the African part in every single piece of our DNA—people were reluctant to accept that [in Lecuona's time]. 

But he always kept that classical essence to it, which is also very important, because it's about understanding that if we use the roots that we have, we can expand and transform and create bigger universes.

Watch Kristhyan Benitez perform "Adiós a Cuba," by Ignacio Cervantes, from his Latin Grammy-winning album, Latin American Classics, Vol. 1.

Throughout your career, you've been very passionate about expanding the standard repertoire and presenting works by composers who have been overlooked, historically. This most recent album, for instance, includes a piece composed by Ernesto Lecuona's sister, Ernestine.

She was Ernesto's piano teacher. She was the reason that he became who he was. And for some reason she was kind of forgotten. I always say to my colleagues that I don't understand this. The impact of women in history—why don't we want to point that out more? The talents are there. The history is there. Sometimes people want to hide it, or they don't want to pay attention to it. 

I think it's about educating audiences. When you give people background about what they're going to listen to, then the whole universe changes, and the way they listen to music completely changes the perspective. I think it's very important to do that. In the end, it's all just music. It's a nurture of colors, of emotion, of rhythms. And people should treat it like that.

I think it's about educating audiences. When you give people background about what they're going to listen to, then the whole universe changes, and the way they listen to music completely changes the perspective.

—Kristhyan Benitez

The last time you were nominated in this category, you won for Latin American Classics, Vol. 1. It must be very gratifying for you to reach such a high standard of professional success playing this particular repertoire.

It means the world. It means, also, that I have to work harder. It's not about greed, it's not that. It's like I want to do something more, so the standards are higher. That also happened because of the way I was raised, musically speaking, and the teachers that I've had, and the support that I had when I was at Boston Conservatory.

What was your experience at the Conservatory like?

I studied with Michael Lewin. The way that I learned to be myself and be free was actually through him. I remember when I finished my Artist Diploma, he said to me, "This is the last lesson that I'm going to give you." And I panicked completely. I said, "No, no, no. You have to keep listening, because you are my teacher." And he was like, "No, I'm not your teacher anymore. I'm your colleague." That moment in my life was so important. 

Every time I talk to him, I tell him that story. It really makes me so emotional. Because of him, there are a lot of things that I'm achieving now. And he also believed in Latin American music—which was amazing to me. He plays a lot of Latin American repertoire, but also he encouraged me. Like, "Yes, we have to play Schubert and Schumann, but then let's add Ginastera." It was amazing—which is how it should be.

Listen to Kristhyan Benitez’s Grammy-nominated album Afro-Cuban Dances.