Interview: Pianist Jonathan Biss

American Pianist Jonathan Biss has come far since his 2000 New York recital debut at the 92nd Street Y’s Tisch Center for the Arts, and his New York Philharmonic debut under the baton of Kurt Masur. In two days, he’ll add a debut performance in Carnegie Hall’s Isaac Stern Auditorium on the Ronald O. Perelman Stage to his resume.

Pianist Jonathan Biss

Impressive and breathtakingly passionate at the pianoforte, Jonathan conveys the composers’ own fervor to the audience. The 30-year-old award-winning musician has an extensive list of repertoire from Mozart to Beethoven to Schubert, to contemporary composers and commissioned works, including Composer Bernard Rands for 2010/2011. He has performed with other gifted musicians, and is slated to collaborate this season with Violinist Midori, Cellist Antoine Lederlin and Violist Nobuko Imai for the Japan Festival at Carnegie Hall, and “Chamber Music Across America” at The Kennedy Center.

The talented pianist comes from a remarkable line of musicians. His grandmother, Raya Garbousova, was a well-known cellist who inspired Samuel Barber so much he composed his Cello Concerto in A minor for her, which she premiered with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1946. His parents are Violinist Miriam Fried and Violist/Violinist Paul Biss. Jonathan began his music studies at age six and his first collaborations were with his parents. He studied in his home state at Indiana University with Evelyn Brancart and then at the Curtis Institute of Music under the direction of Leon Fleisher.

Jonathan’s latest album (he’s produced four), Schubert Piano Sonatas (Wigmore Hall Live 2009), was named by NPR music as one of the best albums of the year.

His January 21, 2011 performance at Carnegie Hall follows a long line of greats that have graced that theater, including debuts of Pianist Arthur Rubenstein (1906); Jazz Musicians Benny Goodman and Count Basie (1938); Violinist Isaac Stern (1943); Composer/Conductor Leonard Bernstein (1943); Pianist Van Cliburn (1958); Judy Garland (1961); and The Beatles (1964).

Jonathan has performed there on seven previous occasions with other orchestras and recitals, but this will be his first recital in the main auditorium. The program includes Leoš Janáček’s Sonata 1.X. 1905, From the Street; Robert Schumann’s Fantasy in C Major, op. 17; Ludwig van Beethoven’s glorious Sonata no. 23 in F Minor, “Appassionata”; and the NY Premiere of the piece he commissioned from Pulitzer Prize winner Bernard Rands, Three Pieces for Piano.

This fall, Jonathan will also join the piano faculty at his alma mater, the Curtis Institute of Music. He will again work with Leon Fleisher, not as a student, but as an esteemed colleague.

I spoke with Jonathan via phone from his home in New York (he’s lived there the last eight years) before he headed out for a concert of Schumann and Beethoven at The Hot Springs/Hot Springs Village Symphony Guild in Arkansas. We talked about his upcoming Carnegie Hall performance, the advice he has for young musicians, and how Mozart was like Shakespeare.

Read the interview below, followed by his 2011 concert schedule:

JML – Why is this (Carnegie Hall) concert special to you?
JB –
Carnegie Hall is an iconic place for any classical musician—especially any American classical musician, and for one based in New York as I have been the last eight years. Every great pianist has played there, including all the people I’ve admired and who have influenced my life. I’ve been to so many concerts at Carnegie Hall over the years, and they’ve been memorable. For me to go on stage and play a recital has a kind of resonance beyond playing any recital I have before.

JML – What draws you to Beethoven’s “Appassionata”?
JB –
Beethoven, in general, wrote in a way which communicates drive, intensity and urgency in an incredibly direct way. “Appassionata” is the number one example of that style. There’s a headlong feeling in it. I can’t think of another major work equal to it. I first heard it when I was 11 or 12 years old, and that aspect grabbed hold of me. It’s a piece you hear and is stamped into you. From that point, it’s a part of you. I feel [“Appassionata”] has lived in me and sort of changed me.

JML – Do you try to connect with the composers? How?
JB –
The reason anyone really plays music is because he loves it. It’s the most important prerequisite in a music career. As performers, we’re playing these texts which exist already. Most of my work is about trying to find a way into the soul, into the person of the music I play. It’s a long process and involves so many parts. Not just intellectual, but coming to terms with a piece physically. It’s also a psychological process. I can’t describe it. The whole reason I play music is to try to come closer and closer to these pieces I spend my life working on.

JML – Are there composers or compositions you’d like to tackle that you haven’t yet?
JB –
Many. Above all, I want to make sure in my life I play all the Beethoven Sonatas. I’ve played 17. I would like to play “Hammerklavier” (Piano Sonata no. 29, B-flat, op. 106), and the late [sonatas].

JML – Any advice you wish someone gave you (or did give you) that you’d like to pass along to budding, young artists?
JB –
The main thing is to never lose sight of the aspect of music that you have a passion for. Because it is undeniably hard work to play an instrument, it’s very easy to start to feel mired and more and more removed from the reason you play in the first place. The best thing, I would consciously say, is to take a moment every day to think about what you love about music. Set aside 15 minutes of practice time to play for pleasure. One needs to do that. Be purely in touch with the joy in playing it. Never let that move too far away.

JML – You have quite a bit of Mozart on your schedule. Tell me what you admire about him.
JB –
Mozart is purportedly the greatest communicator of human feeling and sound. He had this direct line, an amazingly developed instinct for human behavior, and expresses it with notes. He’s clearly the greatest opera composer who has ever lived. He takes human emotions and turns them into musical theater. It’s an extraordinary gift. He’s the Shakespeare of music in that way.

JML – You’ll be joining the Curtis Institute Piano faculty this fall. What are some of your goals, what you hope to achieve in this post?
JB –
I’ve done a lot of master classes, but never had my own students. This post will be shared with another faculty member, but I’m the main person in charge. This may be true in any field, especially in classical music, but the job of a teacher is to teach students to learn and to listen to themselves. You know that saying: Give a man a fish and he’s fed for a day, but teach him to fish, and he’s fed for a lifetime? It’s the same thing. You can spoon-feed technical concepts and interpretation of a piece to a student and if he’s talented, he can pick it up. The point of teaching is not only so they play well, but listen well; to open their ears to new ideas and create a culture within them. If they’re always listening, always learning the language of music, it becomes a part of them.

Upcoming Jonathan Biss Performances:
Jan. 21, 2011
New York, NY
Carnegie Hall

Jan. 23, 2011
Baltimore, MD
Shriver Hall

Jan. 25, 2011
Philadelphia, PA
Perelman Theater

Feb. 10-12, 2011
Mozart Quintet in E flat Major for Piano and Winds, K. 452*
Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 in c minor, Op. 37
* (Feb. 12 matinee only)
New York Philharmonic

Feb. 24, 26, 27, 2011
Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 in c minor, Op. 37
Houston Symphony

March 4, 5, 2011
Kansas City Symphony

March 6, 2011
Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in d minor, Op. 15
Kansas City Symphony

March 17, 19, 20, 2011
Mozart Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K. 414
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

March 22, 2011
all-Beethoven
Sonata no. 4 in a minor, Op. 23
Sonata no. 10 in G Major, Op. 96
Sonata no. 2 in A Major, Op. 12 no. 2
Sonata no. 5 in F Major, Op. 24 “Spring”
with Miriam Fried, Violin
Washington, DC
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

March 25, 27, 2011
Beethoven Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat Major, Op. 19
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

April 3, 2011
Katonah, NY
The Music Room at Caramoor

April 5, 2011
New York, NY
Carnegie Hall

April 6, 2011
Haydn Piano Trio in A Major, Hob. XV:9
Schubert Piano Trio in B flat major, D. 898
Dvorak Piano Quartet in E flat Major, Op. 87
with Midori, Violin
Nobuko Imai, Viola
Antoine Lederlin, Cello
Washington, DC
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

April 12, 2011
all-Beethoven
Sonata no. 4 in a minor, Op. 23
Sonata no. 10 in G Major, Op. 96
Sonata no. 2 in A Major, Op. 12 no. 2
Sonata no. 5 in F Major, Op. 24 “Spring”
with Miriam Fried, Violin
Harrisburg, PA
Whitaker Center

April 14-16, 2011
Beethoven Concerto no. 5 in E flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor”
Boston Symphony Orchestra

April 28-30, 2011
Beethoven Concerto no. 5 in E flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor”
San Francisco Symphony

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