The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music interview: The Ear speaks to pianist Jonathan Biss — Part 1 of 2.

March 15, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

At 29, the American pianist Jonathan Biss (below) – the son of violinist Miriam Fried (who performed the Dvorak Violin Concerto here years ago) and violist Paul Biss – is among the rising classical stars of his generation.

His recordings of solo works by Beethoven, Schumann and Schubert and of Mozart piano concertos, have been critically acclaimed for their lyrical musicality and lack of pretense or showboating. Plus, he writes his own liner notes, which are always enjoyably personal and highly informative as well being written in exemplary English — not Music Speak.

You may have seen Biss perform on TV when his teacher Leon Fleisher received the Kennedy Center honors.

He will perform in Madison this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the terrific young German guest conductor Patrick Strub (below) who performed superbly in Madison last season in a memorable concert, featuring the Brahms Violin Concerto with UW violinist Felicia Moye,  with the UW Symphony Orchestra.


The MSO program includes von Weber’s Overture to “Oberon,” Brahms’ Serenade No. 1 and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat major (“Jeunehomme”), K. 271, with Biss.

Performances are in Overture Hall on Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $15-$75. Call the Overture Center box office at 258-4141.

Recently Biss spoke via e-mail with The Ear about his upcoming Madison performances, his career and other matters. Here is the first of a two-part interview. The second part will be posted Tuesday.

What do you know or have heard about Madison, Madison audiences and the Madison Symphony Orchestra?

I’ve often heard Madison cited as one of the most altogether appealing college towns in the country – and every time I mention that I’m going there, I’m told I’ll love it! I can’t say that I know much in particular about the audience, but I’ve heard very good things about the orchestra – I’m looking forward to it.

In a YouTube video, you talk about a special relationship with Mozart, a composer you will play in Madison. What is that relationship and what makes it special?

I’ve always felt that Mozart translated feeling into sound with both more purity and more complexity than any other composer, and so playing his music put’s one in touch with human emotion in a very direct and beautiful way. While I love playing a wide variety of music, in that respect Mozart is really unique.

Can you talk about the “Jeunehomme” concerto you will perform here and what it means to you?

This concerto is probably the first really immortal masterwork that Mozart wrote, and even though he lived another fifteen years after writing it, I wouldn’t say that he surpassed it. The level of innovation in nearly every phrase is remarkable, and the depth of feeling – particularly in the tragic slow movement – is just ridiculous for a 21-year-old.  If you look at the previous concertos and compare it with this one, you can see that it is an enormous leap forward.

Tomorrow: Jonathan Biss on future CDs, building younger classical music audiences and new media, including his blog.



Posted in Classical music

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