The Well-Tempered Ear

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

March 16, 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. Plus, he writes his own liner notes, which are always enjoyable personal and highly informative in well-written 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 who performed superbly in Madison last season with the UW Symphony Orchestra.

The MSO program, includes Weber’s Overtue to “Oberon,” Brahms’ Serenade No.1 and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 (“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 last of the two-part interview.

What are you plans for future recordings – solo, concertos and chamber music? Is there particular recording you are proud of having made?

While there are many things in discussion, nothing is firm at the moment. Among the recordings of made, I would probably single out the Mozart and the Schubert as both were made live. The experience of recording concert – while scary – is really exhilarating.

You seem to favorite the German composers – Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann along with some Kurtag. What composers do you feel the closest affinity to and why?

There’s nothing more difficult than explaining why it is that you love one kind of music more than another – it’s so extremely personal, and it has to do with feelings that defy description. While I love a wide variety of music, it is true that Germanic music has a special place for me. If I had to make a very broad statement, I’d say it’s because the German composers (across several centuries) dealt with the Big Questions – life and death, man’s place in the universe. While that undoubtedly led to the creation of some very bad, very self-important music, it also inspired some of the most moving creations of civilization.

How can classical musicians help build audiences of young people today?

That’s a big question without a simple answer. I think first of all we have to find them – going to schools and exposing kids to music is the most important component of building on audience, because a person who heard music growing up is vastly more likely to feel comfortable with it.

I think the other thing we need to do is examine all of the various rituals of the concert hall – some of them make sense, and others have absolutely nothing to do with the music and just create walls between the performer and the audience. I think breaking down those barriers could bring in a new audience that currently feels intimidated by the concert hall.

Does starting a career today mean relying more on new media and social network media? Are there examples from your own life and career?

This will seem crazy, but things have changed so much since I was starting out (more than 10 years ago…) that I’m not really equipped to answer. I think that the internet has created all sorts of opportunities for finding an audience for oneself which didn’t exist previously, but I’m not the right person to comment on it!

Here is Biss on YouTube commenting of what he has on his Ipod and on jazz:

Why do you blog? Do you enjoy it? How does it fit into your schedule?

I blog, first of all, because it is a creative outlet which is utterly different from playing. I also find that when I blog about music it helps me clarify certain priorities – being forced to choose my words makes me realize which aspects of a piece I find really come to define it.

(Here is a link to his blog:

And lastly – but definitely not least – it is a way to flesh out aspects of my musical personality that I suspect my audience might be interested in. I’m an extremely irregular blogger – I desperately need to get back to it, in fact – but I always enjoy it when I do it.

How many dates do you generally play in a season? What is a typical day for you when you are on tour?

I play between 80 and 90 concerts in a season, although that number is something I’m constantly re-examining. There really is no typical day, but practice is always involved! Regular contact with the instrument is not something I can manage without.

You studied with Leon Fleisher. Are there teachers and other pianists you particularly admire or find influential? Why?

I spent many summers at Marlboro, and Richard Goode and Mitsuko Uchida have both been big influences. I think in each case – even though they are very different – it is their utter integrity, and their desire to always go deeper into the music that I have found very inspiring.

You’re young and you’re successful without having won a major competition. What advice would you give to young aspiring professional musicians today about building a career?

I don’t know if I’m the best person to give advice, but I think any musician can do is follow their passion, develop it, and resist – at all costs – becoming jaded about music-making. It the risk of sounding overly idealistic, I think that if you do something with energy, devotion, and quality, there will always be an audience for it.

Posted in Classical music

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