Young pianist enjoys blissful, busy start to musical career
Jonathan Biss says the classical musicians he knows break roughly into two camps: those who use the opportunities to travel and connect with different people as a way of developing worldly and expansive minds, and those who are focused so narrowly on their music that they shut out other input. After a conversation that included a long interlude into Woody Allen’s filmography and “The Simpsons,” it became clear to me that pianist Biss belongs to the former realm.At 24, Biss is breaking into the upper ranks of soloists. Having performed with most major North American orchestras, he will make his debut this summer with six prominent festivals, including Tanglewood and the Hollywood Bowl in the United States, Norway’s Risor Festival and Mostly Mozart in London. He also has a prominent role in the first week of the Aspen Music Festival’s 2005 summer season, performing in a chamber music concert Saturday and as a featured artist with the Aspen Festival Orchestra’s first concert, Sunday, June 26.While he maintains the frantic international schedule common to a rising young soloist – one recent year included a numbing 11 trans-Atlantic trips – Biss makes room for plenty else. He is enrolled in a Columbia University program that allows him to pursue a degree at a slow but steady pace. At the rate of one course a year, he has studied politics and literature, with philosophy up next. He is also an avid jazz lover. Biss arrived in Aspen this week uncommonly refreshed, thanks to a three-week break in which he never left New York, where he resides: “The world’s most unglamorous vacation. Three weeks of sleeping in my own bed. Just what I needed.” The three-week breather, which allows opportunities to practice but not perform, has become an integral part of hisexistence.
“I live in horror of being the ignorant musician who doesn’t learn anything, doesn’t know anything else,” said Biss, whose personality is balanced between a visible intelligence and a casual affability. “You have to work doubly hard to feel well-grounded and -rounded.”That broadminded approach seems a natural product of his upbringing. Biss’ parents, Miriam Fried and Paul Biss, are violinists who both perform and teach at Indiana University. (Biss’ late maternal grandmother, Raya Garbousova, was the first prominent female cellist; Samuel Barber wrote his cello concerto for her in 1945. Biss knew his grandmother well, but never saw her perform nor even saw her hold the cello.) His folks were the antithesis of the overbearing stage parents, ignoring as best they could the 4-year-old Jonathan’s pleas for piano lessons. Biss went to a public high school and stayed far from the prodigy track.”They wanted me to be really sure I was doing it just for myself,” said Biss, adding that his parents finally gave in to his desire for lessons when he was 6. “Because they know how hard it is. They were adamant that I get an education and do something else. They were in no hurry for me to follow in their footsteps. They wanted me to do what was right for me.”At the same time, music filled the Biss’ Bloomington, Ind., household – not just the music itself, but the idea that making music could be a way of life.”I was relatively old before I realized that it wasn’t the most normal thing one could do with one’s life,” he said. “In elementary school, I finally realized that there were other professions. But I couldn’t imagine what they were.”Ironically, the combination of seeing music as “the most natural means of expression” and having the freedom not to pursue it instilled in Biss a clear sense of purpose. He entered Philadelphia’s Curtis School of Music with uncommon clarity. “I met many people who didn’t have that certainty,” he said. “I was glad I never doubted why I was doing it.”
Biss’ past has also left him with a bright picture of the future. The demands of a musical career can still be daunting, but he says not a day passes where he doesn’t acutely feel fortunate to be doing something he loves. And with the immense piano repertoire ahead of him, he sees no reason why that feeling shouldn’t last for 60 years or so.”Especially as a pianist, knowing I could be extremely diligent and still never get to all the pieces I love … there’s just no way,” he said. “And that isn’t even touching all the stuff that’s just good. It’s a built-in assurance that I’ll never get bored.”Biss is building a reputation for favoring the more serious corners of that repertoire. He has played “tons of Mozart and Beethoven – to my eternal joy,” he said. (He plays Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, with Aspen Music Festival Music Director David Zinman conducting, Sunday.) And he has worked lots of Schumann and Brahms, plus 20th-century composers Bartók, Schoenberg and Janácek, into his vocabulary. Biss thrives on music that holds endless challenges. “I’ve been described as serious – which I half love and half hate,” he said. “I want there to be a sense of fun to it. But I guess I got that characterization from the repertoire I play.”But I think I play music that is better than it can ever be played,” he added. “It’s music whose problems I don’t think I can solve by the next performance.”Perhaps most indicative of the maturity and balance in Biss’ career is the music he chooses not to play. He has largely avoided the Russian composers, for example, because he simply has not felt the calling to play their music. And he recently declined two engagements with good orchestras, including the Boston Symphony, because the music just wasn’t appealing enough. The decision gave his manager fits, but Biss is sure he did the right thing.
“There was a time when I would have sucked it up and said yes,” he said. “But I turned them both down because I wasn’t passionate about the music. If I have a bad reaction like that, I feel I have a responsibility to turn it down. You can only really do justice to something you’re committed to.”This week at the Music FestivalIn addition to the Beethoven piano concerto that Biss will play, the Aspen Festival Orchestra concert Sunday, June 26, features “Manhattan Roll,” by Music Festival composer-in-residence Robert Beaser, and Strauss’ Symphonia domestica, a piece written as a document of the composer’s daily life. Beaser will join Music Festival Artistic Advisor Asadour Santourian in a preconcert lecture at Harris Hall.The minifestival Forbidden Music: Conscientious Objectors, spotlighting composers who used their music to oppose fascism, begins Monday, June 27, with a chamber music concert of works by Hindemith, Martinu, Dohnányi and Tippett. Other events in the minifestival include the Tuesday, June 28, chamber music concert, with works by Britten and Hartmann; an Inside Music discussion and the Sinfonia concert, both Wednesday, June 29; the Aspen Concert Orchestra, with conductor Federico Cortese and pianist Anton Nel Thursday, June 30; and the screening of director István Szabó’s 2001 film “Taking Sides,” starring Stellan Skarsgard as Nazi-era conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, Friday, July 1.The Aspen Chamber Symphony concert Friday, July 1, with conductor Andreas Delfs, features pianist Andreas Haefliger as soloist for Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3, as well as works by Weber and Mozart. Sunday, July 3, Marin Alsop conducts the Aspen Festival Orchestra and percussionist Evelyn Glennie in the U.S. premiere of Steven Stucky’s “Spirit Voices,” co-commissioned by the Aspen Music Festival, as well as works by William Bolcom and Brahms.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org