The Way to Carnegie Hall? Success

01.14.11
Jonathan Biss
The New York Times

By Allan Kozinn

“IT’S hard to believe, isn’t it?” the pianist Leon Fleisher said during a recent discussion about the impending Carnegie Hall debut recital of his former student Jonathan Biss.

It is indeed difficult to think of Mr. Biss, whose concert is on Friday evening, as a debutant of any sort. At 30, he has been active in New York’s musical life for more than a decade as recitalist, concerto soloist and chamber player. His reputation as an eloquent interpreter with a powerful technique has been underscored by recordings for EMI Classics and Wigmore Hall Live, and his elegant writing about music, both on his blog and on other music sites, has established him as one of his generation’s most serious musical thinkers.

He also recently joined the faculty of his alma mater, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. And when he plays Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall next month, he will have performed the complete Beethoven concerto cycle (including the Choral Fantasy) with the orchestra.

“It was very much by design, not only that I did not go to competitions, but also that I never had a capital-D debut that was supposed to be a launching pad,” Mr. Biss said, explaining his unusual but characteristically careful approach to building his career. “I had played a few concerts already the first year I was in school, and it has slowly and steadily built from there. Since there was never a single performance that was supposed to change my life, it was a lot easier to keep the focus on my musical development, where it belonged, and belongs.”

As Carnegie Hall debuts go, Mr. Biss’s is laden with asterisks: He has played concertos in the hall with several orchestras and a recital downstairs at Zankel Hall. So why, having avoided the capital-D debut until now, does he consider this concert such a big deal?

“Well, I’ve loved my experiences playing with orchestras at Carnegie Hall,” the thin, bespectacled Mr. Biss said during a recent interview at his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “But recitals feel different, not just because you’re onstage longer, and alone, but because when you play a concerto, you are a guest. Beyond maybe being asked what concerto you want to play, you have no role in planning the program. With a recital, you are essentially being asked to create an emotional experience for an audience member. It is a much more personal statement than playing a concerto. Playing a recital is the best way of showing who you are as a musician.

“The other aspect is the hall itself. For me it is something to do with the fact that every musician of the last 120 years who is meaningful to me has played there, and I’ve heard most of the great pianists of the last 50 years there myself. So the idea of playing a recital there feels like — I don’t want to say ‘arrival,’ because I try to see my life in music as a process. But it is a milestone, a moment in my life that things have been leading toward.”

Mr. Biss traces his history at the hall to a prenatal experience: his mother, the violinist Miriam Fried, played a Mozart concerto there with the Cleveland Orchestra when she was pregnant with him in 1980. He first walked on the stage when he was 6, during a rehearsal for another of his mother’s performances.

He has always been surrounded by musicians. His father, Paul Biss, is a violinist and violist, and his paternal grandmother, the cellist Raya Garbousova, gave the premiere of the Barber Cello Concerto.

After early studies at Indiana University, where both of his parents taught during his childhood (they now teach at the New England Conservatory in Boston), Jonathan Biss enrolled at Curtis to study with Mr. Fleisher. He was 16 and was already performing publicly, but he was in awe of Mr. Fleisher, whose Beethoven and Brahms recordings he had devoured.

“The basic deal with the piano is coming to terms with its unbelievable imperfections,” Mr. Biss said, “the fact that it will never blossom over the course of a note, and that you can never make a crescendo from note to note without some sort of illusion involved. But Fleisher’s sound makes you believe in the illusion. It has an incredibly deep core, with a vibrating shine around it. I don’t know how he makes that happen, but I’m spending my life trying to figure it out.”

Mr. Fleisher, speaking by telephone from his home in Baltimore, said that what particularly struck him about Mr. Biss was “his awareness that music was something not only to be felt, or reacted to, but to be understood and examined.

“His ability and interest go for things of transcendence and sublimeness. That made a great impression on me.”

Mr. Fleisher fully endorsed Mr. Biss’s determination to avoid competitions.

“He took a very healthy road that started with chamber music, both with his mother and then more extensively at places like Ravinia and Marlboro,” Mr. Fleisher said. “And he got to be known by the elders in the profession as somebody to look out for. I think that really is the healthiest, most solid and meaningful way to make a career.”

Mr. Biss’s Carnegie Hall program, which he has been playing on tour since early December, is an overview of some of his longstanding fascinations. Janacek’s Sonata “1.X.1905,” which opens the program, is a piece he regards almost as a personal discovery, having researched Janacek’s piano music after performing the Violin Sonata with his mother and been taken with productions of “The Cunning Little Vixen” and “The Makropulos Case.”

Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata, which closes the first half (and which he recorded for his first EMI CD, in 2003), was a childhood obsession. When he was 12, he wore out a cassette tape of Rudolf Serkin’s recording by playing it every day on the way to and from school.

“It was the first piece,” he said, “where I thought, ‘I have to play that.’ ”

Between the Janacek and the Beethoven he will play Bernard Rands’s new Three Pieces, which he commissioned for the program. Mr. Rands, who lives in Chicago, composed the set during the summer and sent each movement, on its completion, to Mr. Biss at Marlboro. A November visit to Chicago for a Beethoven concerto with the Chicago Symphony included a private reading of the work for Mr. Rands.

Mr. Rands said by e-mail that Mr. Biss had played it “beautifully and with complete command of the notes and their musical potential” and then confessed that performing the score for its composer was “the most nerve-racking experience of my life.” Mr. Rands found the expression of humility endearing.

“I don’t think new music will ever be at the core of what I do,” said Mr. Biss, whose repertory also includes works by Lewis Spratlan, David Ludwig, William Bolcom, Leon Kirchner and Gyorgy Kurtag. “But I want to feel that what I do is always vibrant, that the pieces I love that are 100, 200 years old are also of the present. And I can’t feel that if they don’t in some way exist in conversation with the music that’s being written now.”

But it is the finale of his recital, the Schumann Fantasy in C, that strikes closest to home for Mr. Biss. An avowed Schumann fanatic, he is intent on persuading listeners to value Schumann as he does, and to prize his music for precisely the reason many listeners have problems with it.

“Schumann is so often criticized for not being Beethoven, Schubert or Brahms,” he said, “that it can be hard to listen to his music for what it is, rather than what it isn’t. But I love the aspects of his music that come in for criticism. I love his digressions. I don’t hear them as flaws but as the kind of stream of consciousness that you wouldn’t be interested in if it wasn’t written by a genius.

“The Schumann Fantasy,” he added, “is probably the piece that I feel most strongly about in the world. I don’t want to say it’s the greatest piece of music there is, or that there is no other piece I love as much. But I believe that, note for note, when I play the Schumann Fantasy, I really understand what produced it, and I feel a special kinship. It puts me in an emotional space that is unique and powerful, to the point that I would call it dangerous. I feel, when I play it, that maybe there’s a limit to the number of times I can do that to myself.”