Pianist Jonathan Biss just plain likes music and he just plain likes performing. "The most wonderful thing about being a pianist is the wonderful repertoire," he says in a telephone interview between movements of a chamber music rehearsal in New York. Recitals, chamber music, and solo performances with orchestra appeal to him equally. "I love all the activities. One benefits the other."
Limiting his concert appearances to 70 a year, Biss says, "I’m serious about sticking to that. If I gave more concerts, I would think ‘I have to do this,’ rather than ‘I’m doing this because I love it.’ I don’t ever want to be less thrilled about being a performing musician than I am now."
Biss solos in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) on Friday, November 25, at Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton University campus. He is also performing at Red Bank’s Count Basie Theatre on Saturday, November 26; at Morristown’s Community Theater on Sunday, November 27; and at Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, November 29. Lawrence Foster conducts. The program also includes two movements from Georges Enesco’s Suite No. 1 and Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 ("Scottish").
This is Biss’s second appearance with the NJSO. He played the Mozart Piano Concert Number 21, K. 467, with the orchestra in March, 2001. Artistic director Emeritus Zdenek Macal conducted. Biss was barely 21 at the time.
The piece Biss performs in the post-Thanksgiving concerts is actually the first of Beethoven’s piano concertos, he points out. It was composed in 1794, three years before the piano concerto designated as number one. "It represents the beginning of Beethoven’s experimentation with the form of piano concerto. He takes up the Mozartean model, yet it’s unmistakably Beethoven. There’s so much of Beethoven’s personality in it."
The concerto, as Biss plays it, incorporates music from two periods of Beethoven’s productivity. Although the concerto was written in 1794, Beethoven didn’t write the cadenza until 20 years later, Biss notes. "So it comes from another part of his life and uses a bigger range of the keyboard." Nobody is quite sure where performers turned for cadenzas for the concerto during the intervening years.
Biss happily performs music from all periods. "I don’t think about balancing classical and contemporary music." he says. His criterion for including pieces in his repertoire is a matter of his personal taste. "I have to want to play the pieces," he says.
Still, Biss is often associated with recent music. "I feel a certain responsibility to new music," he says. "And I want to be in touch with what’s being written that’s new." Biss wades into some rather far out repertoire. In 1997 he played the New York premiere of John Corigliano’s "Chiaroscuro" with pianist James Tocco. The piece calls for two pianos tuned a quarter tone apart." The slight difference in the instruments’ tuning means that the possible pitches are closer together and more numerous than they would be if the pianos were tuned normally. Biss enjoyed the sonic effects that Corigliano wrote into the piece.
"It was fun," he says. "One pianist plays a chord, and the other depresses the keys silently. The pianist who just puts his fingers on the keys without making a sound raises the dampers and the vibration makes a kind of Doppler effect [giving an audible after-sound]."
Biss is the third generation in a family of musicians. He grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, the child of faculty members at Indiana University. His grandmother, Raya Garbousova, was one of the first well-known female cellists. It was for her that Samuel Barber composed his cello concerto. His parents are violist/violinist Paul Biss and violinist Miriam Fried. "The advantage of the family is huge," Biss says. "I learned the language of music from my parents. Growing up was an immersion in music."
Born in 1980, Biss began making noises on the piano at age three or four and asked for lessons. But his parents resisted until he was six. By the time he was 16, his performance attracted the notice of violinist Isaac Stern, who heard him play at a summer institute in Israel and asked his manager to sign him up.
After studying at Indiana University Biss attended Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, where he worked with Leon Fleischer. He made his Carnegie Hall debut at 19 and his New York City recital debut at the 92nd Street Y in 2000.
He has formed an official part-time duo with his mother. "It’s the closest thing I have to a regular chamber music relationship," he says. "We perform every year. This year we have five or six concerts together. It depends on our schedules." The pair is currently learning the Beethoven cycle of 10 violin and piano sonatas.
"Playing with a parent either works incredibly well or is a total disaster," Biss observes. "It’s always been easy for me to play with my mom. Since the beginning, it’s been comfortable. There’s no baggage of being family that carries over into it."
This past summer Biss made his debut at seven music festivals. He admits his surprise at learning how many places he appeared for the first time. One gets the impression that he was so occupied with being in transit that he didn’t have time to count. "This summer was crazy," says the New York City resident. "I went to Europe three times and to the west coast twice. It was a lot of stress being in new situations. But I was in great places." His trajectory took him to Aspen, the Hollywood Bowl, New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival, Tanglewood in Massachusetts, the Risor Festival in Norway, London’s Mostly Mozart Festival, and the Schleswig-Holstein Festival in Germany.
I ran into Biss at the notably informal Risor Chamber Music Festival on Norway’s south coast, where a season of roughly 20 performances is compressed into five days at the end of June and beginning of July. The 15-year old festival has a deserved reputation for superb music-making. Performances take place primarily in a wooden baroque church in a photogenic former fishing village gleaming with white houses. Festival co-directors Leif Ove Andsnes and Lars Anders Tomter invite a select group of musicians to luxuriate in 21 hours of daylight each day and submit to a massive concert schedule. Biss played in five different concerts in a space of four days: one sonata with violin, one piano trio, two piano quartets, and one piano concerto. "People slept, ate, and rehearsed," Biss says. "There was no time to worry."
The unavailability of time to worry may be an element in the excellence of the Risor performances. Biss draws a distinction between rehearsing, for which he uses the word "work," and performing, for which he uses the word "play." "You have to be critical as long as you’re working," he says. "But when you play you need to allow yourself the freedom to not worry. When you work, you’re looking very much at detail. When you perform you need to keep an eye on the big picture."
Biss keeps his eye on the big picture in his first commercial recording, which was issued by EMI Classics in May, 2004. The CD opens with the rarely-heard Beethoven Fantasia, Op. 77, and includes Robert Schumann’s "Davidsuendler Taenze" and Beethoven’s "Appassionata" sonata. He wrote the liner notes himself. Biss’ performance on the recording runs the gamut from virtuosity to lyrical introspection.
Explaining the thinking behind the selections on the recording, Biss says, "My first criterion was that it had to be pieces that I loved and had a lot of performing experience with. And the CD had to be coherent. Part of the reason I came up with the Beethoven Fantasia, Opus 77, was that I wanted something not so well-known. The Fantasia is wonderful and utterly neglected. You can tell that it is a link to Beethoven as an improviser; there’s the sudden introduction of new material and no development. The ‘Appassionata’ is something I feel very comfortable with. It’s a childhood piece of mine. I chose that first. I adore the ‘Davidsbuendler.’ It’s very different in content and form from the ‘Appassionata.’ The ‘Appassionata’ is one of the most tightly wound pieces. The ‘Davidsbuendler’ takes its time to unfold."
Leavening his musical career, Biss is a part-time student at Columbia University. "It’s something I’m doing for myself," he says. "I went to a conservatory, and I figured that if I waited for the right time to go to college, I’d never do it. So I made time. I’m a matriculated student. I want to do the exams and the papers." He takes one class a semester. His current course is on the politics and institutions of the European Union. He has completed courses in British literature and sociology. "Whenever I’m in New York I go to class," he says. "I can’t worry about being absent. I told the instructor about my situation."
Biss had a "situation," not only with his instructor, but with his agent, who received the news that the pianist had been awarded a prestigious Gilmore Young Artist Award and tried to pass the message on to him. The award of $15,000 is given every two years to an American pianist below the age of 21 who demonstrates the talent and drive to become a successful concert performer. The decision is made by an anonymous committee and nominees are not told that they are being considered. "I had no inkling," Biss says. "I was in Italy, and I didn’t have a mobile phone that worked in Europe. I was only checking my E-mail once a day." Biss’s agent fired off three increasingly urgent E-mail messages, the last all in capital letters, before Biss finally responded.
"It’s the best thing in the world to win something out of the blue, that you didn’t know you had done anything for," Biss says. "The Gilmore is a competition where there’s a winner, but no losers. Nobody has to go through that horrible stress of competitions." The prize suits a pianist with an all-encompassing love of music and a formidable technique.
A review of the piece that Biss was rehearsing when we had our telephone conversation supports both the Gilmore’s choice and Biss’ approach to his career. Bernard Holland, writing in the New York Times, says "Jonathan Biss, who played the piano part with heart and tact, is developing a career, not by star turns or publicity, but by a palpable respect for musical texts and the technique to explicate them."
Jonathan Biss and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Friday, November 25, 8 p.m. Richardson Auditorium. Piano virtuoso Jonathan Biss solos with the orchestra in a program that includes Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2, two movements from Goerges Enesco’s Suite No. 1, and Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 ("Scottish"). 609-258-5000.