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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Interview: The steady, thoughtful rise of American pianist Jonathan Biss

By John Terauds on June 5, 2012

Jonathan Biss performs with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday and Thursday, then returns for a solo recital at Koerner Hall next season.

“I love music so much,” escapes from Jonathan Biss mouth so many times over the course of a half-hour interview that he begins to apologise for repeating himself.

But there’s no need to say sorry for the most noble sort of love, filled with passion, yet tempered with respect and realism.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

Torontonians get their third opportunity to witness Biss’s fine artistry on Wednesday and Thursday night, as he joins the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and music director Peter Oundjian for a performance of Robert Schumann’s much-loved Piano Concerto at Roy Thomson Hall (you’ll find all the details here).

Biss has Schumann on the brain these days, as he puts the finishing touches on a series of four recital programmes he has created to honour the Romantic composer next season.

“I’m a fanatic for every note Schumann wrote,” Biss says, plainly. He believes that too many of the composer’s works aren’t heard often enough. He also thinks that Schumann, who was entirely self-taught, sometimes doesn’t get enough respect. So he’s setting out to do something about it.

The four concerts he has pulled together are called Schumann Under the Influence, he explains with a chuckle. It is a purely musical offering that surveys key works that influenced the composer, mixes in Schumann’s own music, and then moves forward in time to show how it, in turn, influenced later artists.

Among the key influences Biss has chosen are Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To a Distant Loved One) and Henry Purcell’s Fantasias. In the 20th century, he hears echoes in Leos Janácek’s On the Overgrown Path and Alban Berg’s Op. 1 Piano Sonata.

Biss returns to Toronto on March 24, 2013 for his first solo recital here — at Koerner Hall. That programme is a condensed version of his Schumann adventure (all the details are here).

As a third-generation professional musician, the classical canon is in Biss’s blood. He says he began playing through the Mozart violin sonatas around age 10, accompanying his mother, Miriam Fried — and quickly learning the joys of making music with others.

Which is why, unlike many star soloists, Biss makes time to teach as well as perform chamber music.

“There’s something that can happen in those concerts, when you play with the right people. There are moments where your experience of the music is completely united, and there is nothing that feels like that. It’s a kind of exhilaration,” he says.

He is also fortunate enough to be able to limit his concert appearances to 80 a year, to help keep him fresh. Not that he would abandon his profession if the gigs dried up.

“I would continue to play even if no one were interesting in listening to me and no one paid for it,” Biss insists.

But he does set boundaries: “The main rule is I have to look at the concert date in my calendar and know immediately why I’m doing it,” he explains. “I always play music that I love — that’s a rule I’ve had for a long time. And I play with people who love making music.”

Biss was one of the lucky young pianists to get a big-label contract early in his career, with EMI. The first album, released in 2004, featured the music of Robert Schumann, as well as some Beethoven. The fourth and final one began a recording love affair with Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas — one that continues with his new label, Onyx.

Biss expects it to take nine years to finish recording all 32 Sonatas.

The level of the writing is so high for each Beethoven sonata that, as the pianist explains, “for the player and the listener, any one of them requires a great deal of concentration, a great deal of psychic energy.” Doing too many at once becomes a blur.

“I was 13 years old when I heard nearly all of them in one day, and it was amazing in one way,” Biss recalls. “Is there some sort of overall takeaway for the whole thing? I’m not sure. I don’t have specific memories of individual pieces and the impact that they had. I only have memories of moments. I think that many got washed away in the volume.”

Biss understands how great art needs room to breathe — as does he.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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