Every piece of music tells a story
An intellectual pianist in the best sense, Jonathan Biss has a probing and poetic musical mind wedded to a playful, spontaneous temperament. Biss, 34, is also a musician who craves performing in public. So much so that even though he wisely canceled a concert in April with the New York Philharmonic — during which he was scheduled to play Brahms' mammoth D-minor concerto — after he slipped and broke his left arm, he kept two concert dates less than a month later with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
At the second concert I attended, Biss gave an exquisite, classically balanced account of Mozart’s complex Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major. Remarkably, Biss then offered a generous encore, “Abschied” (“Farewell”) from Schumann’s “Waldszenen” (“Forest Scenes”) — a memorably touching performance, reinforcing his reputation as the foremost Schumann interpreter of his generation.
“I’m just counting my blessings,” Biss said by phone from the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. “I was incredibly lucky with the injury not ending up being all that bad, and then having fantastic medical care. It’s been six weeks since I’ve felt as much as a twinge.”
Such luck bodes well, because Biss is scheduled to give a recital of works by Mozart, Schoenberg and Schumann at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Oct. 16.
Biss grew up in a Jewish musical family in Bloomington, Ind., where his parents — mother, Miriam Fried, a Romanian-born Israeli violinist, and father, Paul Biss, a violinist and conductor — were professors at Indiana University. Biss’ paternal grandmother was Russian cellist Raya Garbousova, whose playing was reportedly admired by Pablo Casals. His maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors.
“I’m not remotely observant,” Biss said of his heritage. “If I was forced to pick between musician and Jewish as adjectives to describe myself, I would obviously say musician. But in ways that are so basic — I can’t even put them in words — I am a Jewish person. It’s just part of my cultural being. It’s clearly who I am.”
Coming out of an immersive family musical environment, it’s not surprising Biss sees an intimate connection between music and language, a link he said he’s been thinking about even more now that he is on the piano faculty at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, his alma mater.
“Any piece of music worth listening to, there’s a narrative and grammar,” Biss said. “The intonation of the musical sentence reflects that — pausing for emphasis, moving ahead for emphasis. And you have to articulate for emphasis. Without thinking about it, we all inflect phrases, and that’s a huge part of music making.”
If ever a piece of music tests an interpreter’s ability to keep the story focused and emotionally coherent, it’s Schumann’s mercurial “Kreisleriana” (1838), which Biss will perform during the second half of his Broad Stage program. A set of eight untitled fantasies, “Kreisleriana” is just the kind of challenge Biss revels in, from its tumultuous in medias res beginning to its disarming intimacy, childlike innocence and spellbinding mystery.
“When people say that Schumann’s music is poetic, it’s a way of saying that it’s music where how he says something is as important, or more important, than what he says,” Biss said. “I’m not saying there isn’t any of that in Beethoven, but Beethoven is so relentlessly concerned with taking you from place to place, he doesn’t leave himself space to find these nooks and crannies, where in Schumann, the nooks and crannies are so often the best part.”
For Biss, the interpreter’s most important job is to make listeners understand there is a reason why one event follows another. “Sometimes the sequence is strange, seemingly irrational on the surface,” Biss said, “but even irrationality has a reason.”
Biss said he also thinks a lot about the sequence of works in his recital programs. For the first half of his Broad Stage recital, he’s programmed Mozart’s Sonata No. 14 in C minor, K. 457 and Sonata No. 15 in F major, K. 533/494 with Schoenberg’s “Six Little Piano Pieces” in between.
“The way one hears music is hugely affected by context,” Biss said. “The quality that binds these three very different composers is that they are all mercurial. Mozart writes temperamental music, which comes from him being, in essence, a theatrical or opera composer. The characters change their mood frequently. He can go from tempestuous to nostalgic, sometimes with finger-snapping speed. If anyone else did it, it would seem stage-managed.”
For Biss, the link to Schumann in the program’s second half is clear. “Schumann may have worshipped Beethoven, but temperamentally he was much closer to Mozart,” Biss said. “And with Schoenberg, there’s this unrelenting intensity, but his ‘Six Little Pieces’ are so tiny and evanescent, with the distillation of an idea — a feeling comes and almost before you know it, it’s gone.”
Although he’s currently midway through the process of recording Beethoven’s complete cycle of 32 piano sonatas, a project Biss said may take him until he’s 40, the pianist still finds time to perform new music. In April 2014, he premiered Bernard Rands’ Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with the Boston Symphony, and his latest endeavor, “Beethoven/5,” involves the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which commissioned five composers — Timo Andres, Sally Beamish, Salvatore Sciarrino, Caroline Shaw and Brett Dean — to write new piano concertos for Biss, each inspired by one of Beethoven’s five piano concertos.
Andres recently sent Biss the first movement of his score, which takes off from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. It will be paired with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra program in November.
“The idea was to take as wide a range of composers to demonstrate that whoever you are or whatever your compositional style, you’re going to have something to say about Beethoven,” Biss said. “That’s just the nature of Beethoven’s music and his place in the musical world.”
Meanwhile, Biss is busy teaching, recording, adding to his popular online music course “Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas” (three more lectures were appended to the site in May) and working on Andres’ partial score while awaiting the rest with “a mix of elation, terror and confusion.”
“One of my great failings as a musician is that I don’t compose,” Biss said. “I don’t have any ability in that direction. I feel I would understand something more of the process if I did. I hear these great works — a Beethoven string quartet or ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ — and I always think, ‘What was the first idea that led to this?’ And it’s not a question I can begin to answer.”
Biss said that’s one reason he’s so proud of the “Beethoven/5” project. “My greatest hope is that the pieces have a life beyond me,” Biss said. “Playing new music — working on music that has no performance history — forces me to think in a different way about how the creation process happened.”
For now, Biss said he’s looking forward to his Broad Stage recital. “There’s something about my need to share with other people, and I really mean need. It’s wonderful to play privately in a room and feel free and uninhibited, but something happens when you actually connect to an audience, which can be total magic.”