Jonathan Biss; Making his Carnegie Hall recital debut, the exacting young pianist eschews perfection.

01.18.11
Jonathan Biss
TimeOut New York

By Olivia Giovetti

At first meeting, Jonathan Biss seems like a character from a Woody Allen movie. It helps that he lives on an Upper West Side block reminiscent of the milieu in Hannah and Her Sisters, possesses a neurotic energy and humor like that of Annie Hall’s Alvy Singer and counts among his personal list of classic films Love and Death. Yet beyond the pale exterior of a sophisticated New Yorker—as comforting as Allen’s consistent Windsor Light–fonted title credits—Biss boasts a kinetic alacrity for his craft that, at the keyboard, he tempers with refined introspection. A ubiquitous figure on the New York chamber music scene, from the 92nd Street Y to (Le) Poisson Rouge, Biss’s star will rise still higher Friday 21 with his Carnegie Hall mainstage recital debut.

Though born in 1980, Biss claims in his Web biography (at jonathanbiss.com) that his professional debut occurred several months earlier, when his pregnant mother, violinist Miriam Fried, performed Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 with Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. His father, Paul Biss, is also a violist and violinist; his grandmother Raya Garbousova was the cellist for whom Samuel Barber composed his Cello Concerto.

By including a commissioned work by Pulitzer-laureate composer Bernard Rands in his Carnegie program, Biss continues the family tradition of premiering works while simultaneously making a bold statement. “I thought, This is a great opportunity to introduce a piece by a composer that I chose,” Biss says of his decision to showcase Rands’s Three Pieces for Piano. “I love bringing his music to a large group of people in a concert that’s pretty obviously important to me. He has a very distinct voice, and yet there are a lot of very clear influences in his music.”

Biss asserts that Rands’s ear for color is on par with those of Debussy and Ravel, and his music also has a Scriabinesque psychedelic intensity. The composer has, according to Biss, “a totally original voice and this deep connection to the past. When I hear Bernard’s music, I know that even if I couldn’t describe exactly how two, three hundred years of piano writing has influenced him, it’s in there.”

But building a recital program around Rands comes with the greater challenge of programming around a composition that Biss’s audience has not heard previously. The pianist’s strategic solution draws upon the sense of occasion involved in such a major performance. “Playing at Carnegie is a milestone in my life,” Biss explains. “I wanted all the other pieces to represent important moments in my life.” The program will open with Janacek’s Sonata 1.X.1905 (“From the Street”), a work about which Biss felt a sense of discovery when he began playing it around a decade ago. Though Janacek’s piano music has gained recognition approaching that of his operas and chamber music, at first “From the Street” was a secret weapon in Biss’s recital arsenal, one that resonated with audiences long after hearing it. “That’s a fantastic feeling as a performer, to get to introduce people to pieces and have them really love it,” he says.

Also on the bill are two works Biss has recorded, Schumann’s Fantasy in C and Beethoven’s Sonata No. 23 (“Appassionata”), both of which rank among the best-known solo piano compositions. For a classical musician, this poses a unique challenge: how to approach pieces that are deservedly popular but, as a result, have been played by countless others. Do standard works create greater pressure to achieve perfection, especially as compared with interpretations by other pianists? As Biss explains, regardless of the piece, he can’t be bothered with that notion. “I don’t think when you’re talking about pieces of that quality that there is such a thing as a perfect performance,” he says. “I don’t think that you ever, ever come to a point where there isn’t more to be said, more to be seen.” He pauses, then adds, “Any discussion about perfection tends to reduce music—I’m only interested in the idea of opening it out.”