Feature Article

Interview:  A Talk with Classical Pianist Jonathan Biss

February, 2004

Jason Victor Serinus

At the age of 23, Jonathan Biss is already considered one of America's finest young pianists. This year alone sees the Curtis Institute graduate paired with Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle in Carnegie Hall, James Levine and the Munich Philharmonic, Sir Roger Norrington and the Rotterdam Philharmonic, Sir Neville Marriner and the San Francisco Symphony, and Lorin Maazel and New York Philharmonic. Add in the imminent release of Biss' first Beethoven disc for EMI, an Avery Fisher Career Grant (1999) and Wolf Trap's Shouse Debut Artist Award (1997), and performances with conductors Kurt Masur, Marin Alsop, and Pinchas Zukerman, and you have some indication of the man's talent.

Jonathan Biss and I spoke at length in August 2003, shortly before he was to perform with the Hartford Symphony. Hearing Biss perform live six months later with the San Francisco Symphony only confirmed the truth of this assessment from the Washington Post: "That Biss is deeply musical, interpretively principled and technically secure (never ostentatious) makes him an exceptional pianist for any age group.”

Jason Victor Bellecci-Serinus: I've read some of your reviews; there's one that speaks of you playing like a pianist from the long lost Golden Age of pianism.

Jonathan Biss: That's lovely to hear. I don't remember that one, but I like it.

JVBS: When I ask pianists who influences them in their playing, just about everyone mentions people who are dead. Who are your influences?

JB: I'm sorry, but I have to start with those who are dead. It's just inevitable.

The first pianist that I loved was Rubinstein. I'm still obsessed with his sound, even though people who heard him play live say that the records can't compare. I still listen in incredible admiration, not just to the sound, but also to the effortless communication of his playing.

Dinu Lipati is an artist whose almost every recorded note is sacred to me. And then, rounding out the list is Arthur Schnabel for very different reasons. All three were very different kinds of artists, but all came very close to the heart of what is important about music in a way which maybe was more common than it is now. I think that they had a very direct relationship to the music they played, and all managed to communicate that in an incredible way.

JVBS: “Heart” is a word I use a lot in my reviews, though I find a number of critics shy away from it. What does the heart of the music mean to you when we're talking about piano composition?

JB: Of course, inherently that what's the most difficult to describe.

JVBS: That's why people write music.

JB: Exactly. Music is the most abstract of the arts.

It's a combination of things. Great performers generally are people with tremendous instincts for everything from form to what's beautiful inside a phrase. All great music is unlike all other great music in a substantive way; great performers know what makes a composer or a particular composition unique. Those elements are usually not explicable. Scholarship can take you a long way, and there's a lot to be gained from knowing a tremendous amount about music. But, in the end, it's the quality that the greatest performers are able to find in the greatest pieces that's very hard to put into words but that I think anybody can hear.

When I mentioned those three, very different pianists, I think this is what they all had in common.

JVBS: How are they different?

JB: What I find so remarkable about Lipati's playing is its directness. He is the most modern of the three because he has the most unfettered approach. There's very little going on around the edges, but somehow he speaks with an incredibly direct voice.

With Rubinstein, it's the beauty of the sound and the joy he took in playing for people, even on records. That's pretty amazing; it's so hard to do on a recording. But it comes through strongly that he loved playing for people very much.

With Schnabel, you feel so strongly the reverence for the music that he played. Probably the reason I love his playing so much is that we both revere a lot of the same music. But to hear the Beethoven sonatas played with that kind of freedom is probably what I love most about his playing.

These are easy answers in a way because Schnabel also had an extraordinary beautiful sound, and Lipati was a great communicator. So maybe they're more alike than I give them credit for.

JVBS: When I think about singers, as soon as you said the word reverence, I thought of Kathleen Ferrier.

JB: Ah yes.

JVBS: who to me had a holy sound like no other singer.

JB: Absolutely.

JVBS: She had a beautiful, beautiful voice, with an incomparable pearly quality we can hear when she's close-miked.

JB: It is quite extraordinary, yes.

JVBS: Hearing her gives me a sense of being in touch with the sacred.

JB: Yes, and you don't feel that as much with a lot of artists these days, in the sense of speaking with the sound. Whether we're talking about a human voice or an instrument, there's an art that I wouldn't say has disappeared but maybe isn't valued as intensely.

JVBS. It's interesting that you say “speaking with the sound.” A lot of pianists I've interviewed make analogies between their pianism and singing. Do you sing along with the music, or hold the intention of creating a “singing line.”

JB: Oh, absolutely. On the piano, the most difficult instrument on which to make a singing line, it's something you're thinking of constantly. In terms of singing along, I discovered only relatively recently is that by singing a phrase, you'll discover things about it that you'll never discover any other way. It's unbelievable. Sometimes there'll be something in a phrase that will be unclear to you in terms of direction, and you sing it once and realize that there's absolutely no question whatsoever. Because singers have the most direct contact with the sound they're producing.

When you're trying to play and instrument and trying to be at one with it, it's so easy to loose touch with the music's singing essence because you're grappling with a physical problem. When the sound is coming out of you, the boundaries are stripped away.

JVBS: What are your strengths, and are there places where you're still striving to communicate or achieve something? Where would you like to see improvement? I'm asking for criticism/self-criticism here.

JB: It's a bit of a pat answer, but I'm always trying to come closer to the essence. For me, my work is always about looking for ways to reproduce honestly what I hear in my head. It's tricky, because what we hear in our head is always evolving, so you have to constantly be looking for new things. Practicing is about listening intently, because the more you listen, the more you realize the things you're not happy with.

I've always felt an extreme sense of devotion to the music that I play; it may well be that something of that devotion comes through in my playing. As for what I can still develop, it is difficult to encapsulate both because it is so clear in my head that I am not used to verbalizing it, and because there is just such a lot of it!

What I can say is that the crux of my work involves looking for the essence of the music that I play, and using a highly critical ear, trying to realize it with ten measly fingers and a rather large black and white beast... What I hope will continue to evolve is my intellectual and emotional understanding of music, as well as my pool of physical resources which I (one) ultimately use (uses) to express said understanding.

Again, there are so many small things that it's difficult to put your finger on them. Sound is a quality in one's playing, and you can always grow in that area as well as others.

I know I'm not answering this question very specifically. Probably what I always felt when I was little was that I was more serious in my approach than a lot of other young pianists. I don't know if that comes from having grown up in a musical family. Maybe I'm more well-rounded than a lot of other pianists, but it's hard for me to say.

JVBS: What do you mean by ‘serious?' I've noticed that in the PR photos, you don't crack a smile.

JB: That's not important; it's because I have a very bad smile.

It's such a cliché, but supposedly young pianists are flashy, interested in playing lots of notes and making a big effect, and it's only later in life, when a little wisdom comes in, that you become interested in the finer nuances. It's such a cliché because I think it's only true in the roughest of senses.

From when I was little, playing Mozart Concertos and the Beethoven sonatas and Schumann was where my heart always was. I think that is a little unusual. And when I was at Curtis I was interested in Shenckerian analysis, a way of looking at harmony and counterpoint which I thought very interesting. I think if you don't have a love of music first, it's not going to get you any closer to the core, but the more you know… Maybe I was inclined more toward the study of music than some other people. but “serious” is such a broad answer.

JVBS: You came from a musical father, mother and grandmother. Did you have a goal of being a concert pianist from an early age?

JB: Not really. I sort of fell into it. I certainly wasn't pushed to play an instrument; that was my choice. Nor did I lead any kind of prodigy life.

I went to public school in Bloomington and all of that. But as long as I can remember, playing the piano was what I wanted to do. From the time I started playing my first few concerts when I was 13 or 14, it became pretty clear to me. But even at that time, I didn't have specific goals or any idea if building a career was realistic or not. I just let things develop as they did.

JVBS: Did some of your career come about because your parents had contacts in the industry? Jon Nakamatsu, for example, knew he wanted to be a concert pianist at age 4, but he studied German and ended up becoming a German teacher because he knew building would be tough. Did you have concerns about making a career? Did you go to college for something else?

JB: I was very lucky. While I'm sure my parents' positions have opened doors for me, I was actually signed to management when I was 16. Isaac Stern heard me play, and he arranged for ICM to take me on. There couldn't have been a farther thing from my mind at the time. It was weird and shocking.

I ended up being managed even before I went to school. So I really didn't have to make a decision about whether I could make a go of it; I was making a go of it.

I did think about whether I wanted to go to college or conservatory. I went to conservatory not because I wasn't interested in college, but rather because I felt I needed to spend a lot time at the instrument. At times I've regretted my decision and considered going back to school. I did take some classes at Penn while I was at Curtis and I still wonder if there's a way for me to go back to school (although I'm really busy now).

Obviously I love playing and really love what I do, but I never pursued a career that much. Things sort of happened naturally, and I'm incredibly lucky that it happened that way. I'm also lucky that I had parents who said to me over and over again, “Be sure that you're doing this because you really want to do it, because if not, you should do something else. It's way too hard to do unless you're really passionate about it.”

I didn't play a lot of concerts while I was in school. My career developed naturally, playing a little more each year. It's great that I've been given time to develop, and that I'll continue to be given time. I wish everybody that kind of career.

JVBS: So you're happy with your schedule and the balance between down time and performing time?

JB: Absolutely. There are times when it's crazy and when exciting things come up making it busier for a period than I want it to be, but my life is pretty reasonable. I make it a point to learn a lot of new pieces every year. It's been arranged really well. I'm really lucky in that regard.

JVBS: This sounds very different than what Joshua Bell told me about his life. He said that he grabs every opportunity that comes his way, wanting to do so much that he burns out.

JB: It's hard. I have had moments when I've asked, “Why did I accept this? It's a stupid decision.” You learn from that. But I think in the end I didn't want to live an intense, overscheduled kind of life all of the time.

Probably my biggest asset is that I'm incredibly passionate about music. I can't believe how lucky I feel to be playing what I'm playing for a living. And I always want to feel that way. I would never want to go onstage and not feel passion.

JVBS: You play some contemporary repertoire. Kirschner has written a piece for you, for example. What other contemporary music have you performed?

JB: I've played music by Takemitsu, another composer I like a lot. Wolfgang Rihm, John Corigliano, Richard Danielpour are other composers I've played in the last year or two.

JVBS: You're playing the Emperor Concerto in Hartford. What can people look for in your interpretation?

JB: I feel that it's so often played in a rather bombastic way. It has the reputation of being the “big” concerto, and its title cements that belief. But so much of it is so ethereal and so beautiful, yet that element of the piece has been lost a bit.

Pieces get labeled. The Fourth is considered to be the more delicate concerto, when I actually find it more big-boned in a way. My feeling about the Fifth is that it's much more lyrical than you hear very often, and that's what I'm looking for whenever I play the piece. The parts of it that are large and grand are obvious; those everybody will hear anyway.

JVBS: Do you find conductors amenable to your approach?

JB: It obviously varies from time to time. As with any concerto, there are times when it's going to be easier and times when it's more difficult. But usually you can find common ground when it's not there to begin with.

JVBS: Your recording release with EMI has been pushed back. Is that a disappointment for you?

JB: Not exactly. There's was talk of moving it up, but that has proven not to be possible, so it's back at its original release date of April 2004. It's a pity in a way, because I have lots of concerts in the fall that it would have meshed nicely with. But it's okay.

JVBS: Do you have any pieces you're dying to record next?

JB: Nothing I'm talking about right now, but a Beethoven cycle of the five concertos is something I dream about. They're all in different ways very close to me. The incredible emotional content, musical variety and sense of process in those five concertos are extraordinary; it would be such a pleasure to do them as a set.

I adore the Second concerto. While it could only have been written by Beethoven, it's very much in the world of Mozart and clearly has the Mozart concertos as a model. The First (which came after the Second) is also a very classical piece, but it's more ambitious in many ways. The Third, the C minor concerto, is vintage middle period Beethoven. The Fourth is one of the great pieces ever written. It's so visionary, from its structure to its emotional content. Then in the Fifth, Beethoven again breaks so much new ground. There are so many new ideas in it.

To play those five pieces as a cycle would be such a privilege. Playing Beethoven is the greatest privilege I have as a musician; at least it's up there with a few other composers. Sharing his music with people is the greatest thing I have in my life.

JVBS: If you had a chance to record something written in the last 50 years, what would it be?

JB: Leon Kirschner's music is very close to me. I've played a lot of it, and his language speaks directly to me. I do like Takemitsu as well. It's a little too much in miniature to imagine recording a whole CD of it.

JVBS: What popular music do you listen to?

JB: Not a whole lot. I listen to the Dixie Chicks now. I am a jazz person: Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday. I love jazz.

JVBS: Because you're only four years out of high school, it would seem to me that you'd be feeling the impact of the decline in music education.

JB: Yes, and we're going to feel it a lot more in the next couple of years.

JVBS: When I interviewed Eugenia Zukerman, she was very pessimistic about what 30 years of MTV and computer screens and 30-second sound bites and have done to people's mentalities. What are you doing about all this?

JB: Until recently, I felt pretty strongly that as musicians, it was our job to play as best we could. When we went somewhere, making an impression was our responsibility, and that was enough. But I'm starting to think that it's not, that we have a greater social responsibility. We've come to a place where popular culture has usurped the arts to such a degree that they're not really recognized by most people. Classical music is not a language that most people speak any more.

I think that we may need a public forum on the arts in general. There needs to be a public discussion about what music is, what its role is in society, and the direction it should be going that can speak to people. It's absolutely true that we've become so entrenched in the immediate that the idea that music can speak to the soul and be something that one has to be involved in has become foreign to people. People go to concerts and expect to sit back and be entertained, and it doesn't occur to them that they have to open their ears for that to happen in a meaningful way.

JVBS: Do we wish to reinforce the notion that one of the primary reasons for going to concerts is entertainment?

JB: It's a terrible idea. Which is not to say that I don't think that music shouldn't be fun. Most great music, not all, has an incredible sense of fun and play in it. But I don't think that dumbing down with the idea of opening the door for people works. People who buy crossover records don't tend to buy classical records; we've seen it again and again and again. The record companies can say all they want otherwise, but they're lying.

[Note: An August 3, 2003 article in on classical sales in the UK, published in UK's The Independent and publicized by andante.com, confirms the truth of Biss' statement about crossover discs. They do not build classical sales].

JVBS: Have you ever worked with conductor Michael Morgan? He conducts Oakland East Bay Symphony and Festival Opera, and is at Tanglewood every year. When I interviewed him for a local paper, he told me that when Festival Opera brings students to their rehearsals, most of his associates feel we have to entertain kids with comic operas. Instead, he gave them Werther. The kids were all crying; they totally identified with the tragedy onstage.

JB: This is the mistake people make in educating children. They think they have to dumb down. When you insult someone's intelligence, they've never going to be interested again.

JVBS: How would you begin to initiate a public forum on the role of music?

JB: I don't know. That's the problem, and it's been consuming me of late. It seems we're moving farther and farther away from considering the arts an essential element in society. Getting someone interested is going to prove very difficult.

I think we should be talking to the National Endowment of Arts. Certainly they're not going to make a big impact with their tiny budget. Maybe their role is to get a discussion going among musicians, artists, writers, music administrators and arts administrators. Nobody's really talking right now, so it could only be a step in the right direction.

I think somehow we have to convince the government that music education is important. We're operating at a bigger disadvantage than ever before.

JVBS: The current political structure in this country does not promote dialogue on almost anything.

JB: My feeling is that you have to make a point of dissenting as loudly as you possibly can. That may be all we can do, but at least it's something. The more you talk, and the more loudly you talk… at least you're trying to make a difference. I have to believe that eventually that will have some effect. Otherwise, what are we living for?

JVBS: What can people ultimately get from music?

JB: Music deals in the realm of the unknown and the mysterious; it heals the soul. Music can make me feel more strongly than almost anything else in life. Hearing great music is an experience I would love for everyone to share in one way or another. I think that's possible; I don't buy into the idea that music is ultimately inaccessible to a large number of people.

I do believe what Isaac Stern was talking about when he said that people who have music in their lives are better people. They're more peace loving and more thoughtful. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. But when you have the experience of something so profound, you're changed and marked by it. If everyone had the element of great music in their lives, we'd probably find ourselves in a better place on a whole variety of levels: we would be more tolerant, we would care more about the plight of other people… all of the things that are bad would maybe be a little less bad.

- Jason Victor Serinus -


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