Jonathan Biss brings Beethoven sonatas (all of them) to the Aspen Music Festival | AspenTimes.com

Jonathan Biss brings Beethoven sonatas (all of them) to the Aspen Music Festival

Jonathan Biss is on a mission for Beethoven.

The acclaimed American pianist, 36, has spent the past six years immersed in the composer's vaunted sonatas, attempting to perform and record the complete sonata cycle.

Biss is in the middle of a three-summer residency at the Aspen Music Festival, during which he will perform all 32 of Beethoven's sonatas. He will play five tonight at Harris Concert Hall.

In addition to recitals, like his two in Aspen this summer, and his planned nine recordings (he's released seven so far), Biss has written a book about the process, "Beethoven's Shadow," and teaches an online course through the Curtis Institute on Beethoven's sonatas. His journey with Beethoven is as much about advocacy and education as performance.

"His intensity and force of personality and his variety of expression is like nothing else I know," Biss said recently on the patio outside of the Paepcke Memorial Building. "So I feel pulled to his music. I hear that this will sound melodramatic, but: I can't imagine my life without it."

The online course, titled "Exploring Beethoven's Sonatas," has been taken by more than 150,000 students in 185 countries — clear evidence that there is a thirst in the general public to learn more about Beethoven and about classical music. With music education's decline in schools, Biss sees it as part of professional musicians' role today to pick up the slack. A concert pianist today, he reasons, can't just show up and perform.

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"I feel that the job of bringing music to people now falls on us, that if we don't do it then it just won't happen," he said. "I would feel almost irresponsible not doing it."

Supplementing his recordings and recitals with an accessibly written book about his creative process was a similarly natural choice.

"I think people are interested in the question of how a performer relates to music, what it means to decide to play this piece and not that piece, to make this phrase crest at this moment and not that moment," he explained. "Otherwise the audience's relationship to you would be you walking onstage, slightly mysteriously, hunching over the piano and then leaving."

Biss has performed 29 out of the 32 Beethoven sonatas, and recorded 25 of them. He aims to complete the cycle by 2020. After digging so deeply into these compositions, they still surprise him.

"The variety of expression is what amazes me," he said.

No body of music, he argues, contains the multitudes of these sonatas.

"If you have heard one Beethoven sonata, you cannot begin to predict how another one will begin, how many movements it will have, how it will proceed from one idea to the next," he said. "To think that he wrote that many pieces of that quality and they're that unpredictable, I find that impossible to understand."

The works mix the sacred and the profane, the idealistic and humorous. When he is programming his Beethoven sonata performances, Biss aims to capture that breadth of artistry.

For tonight's concert, for example, he closes with no. 31, which Biss calls the funniest of them.

"The whole first movement is basically a joke about the hands' inability to play together — over and over and over again, it's like slapstick," he explained.

On the other end of the spectrum, the recital opens with sonata no. 19, opus 49 which "has some of the most tragic music ever written."

"But," Biss adds, "it is ultimately the most uplifting sonata. The way he finds his way out of the tragedy is beyond belief."

Biss is showcasing that scope hoping to blow the minds of not only aficionados, but also neophytes spending their first evening with Beethoven: "I want someone who comes to just one all-Beethoven recital to think, 'How did one imagination produce all of these different pieces?'"

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If You Go …

What: Jonathan Biss plays Beethoven Sonatas

Where: Harris Concert Hall

When: Tuesday, Aug. 8, 7:30 p.m.

How much: $65

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House and Harris Hall box office; http://www.aspenmusicfestival.com

More info: Beethoven enthusiasts have several additional concerts to look forward to this week in Aspen, including the American String Quartet’s performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat major, op. 130 on Wednesday, the Aspen Chamber Symphony’s all-Beethoven program on Friday and the Aspen Festival Orchestra playing Beethoven’s violin concerto with Sergey Khachatryan on Sunday.