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Thread: ONE OF THE HOTTEST TALENTS OF THE MOMENT TO PLAY BERKELEY ON SUNDAY

  1. #1
    Jonathan Biss: 25-year-old pianist has it in the genes

    ONE OF THE HOTTEST TALENTS OF THE MOMENT TO PLAY BERKELEY ON SUNDAY

    We all go through this: We look at someone, very young, very talented, and wonder how that person got to be who he or she is, so fast. Jonathan Biss, the 25-year-old pianist who is among the most talked-about new talents in classical music, credits his own success to luck and genes and, especially, to his mother who taught him, he says, ``that way of breathing in music.''
    Biss, who makes his Bay Area debut as a recitalist Sunday in Berkeley, is descended from a heavy musical lineage. First of all, his mother is Miriam Fried, a violinist with her own international career as a soloist and chamber music player. When Biss took up the piano at 6, he began playing with his mother: ``She was the first musician I knew,'' he says. ``I realize now I was so spoiled. It was really, really crazy. I thought everyone played the violin like that.''
    Fried teaches at Indiana University in Bloomington, where Biss grew up, absorbing music even in the bassinette. (Earlier, too; while pregnant with Biss, his mom performed as soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra.) His father is the violinist and violist Paul Biss, also a well-known performer and Indiana faculty member. If that's not enough, his grandmother was Russian cellist Raya Garbousova, a cult figure in her time.
    ``We have a letter from Casals saying that he had just conducted her in Haydn's D Major Symphony,'' Biss says, ``and that she was the finest cellist he ever heard. Her playing was sort of on a par with her personality, and she was quite a character. She was one of these outsized -- even though she was tiny, actually -- grande dame Russian ladies.''
    Her lanky grandson the pianist, by contrast, is contained -- though you might call Biss blissfully contained, given the focus and heart with which he plays.
    He is a confident performer, for sure. But his demeanor, once the applause begins, can be boyish and shy. In September, after Biss gave a crystal clear and freshly emotive performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall, the conductor seemingly had to coax the bespectacled Biss to come back out from the wings for a series of bows.
    By contrast again, the pianist is a fast, friendly, engaging, and almost gushing talker by phone; we recently spoke when he was in Boston, preparing for a performance with conductor James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
    He was about to perform Beethoven again (the Triple Concerto, with his mother playing the solo violin part) and had this to say, in a rush, about the almost personal relationship he feels with composers such as Beethoven and Schumann: ``The personalities of those composers are in the music so strongly that it can be almost blinding sometimes. You feel that you're interacting with them and, although it sounds ridiculous, you're in some kind of conversation with the music.
    ``I know it somehow sounds crazy,'' he reiterates, ``but sometimes it feels like it's responding to you. That's when I have to pinch myself. These great masterpieces, they're like organisms; you can communicate with them. I hope that doesn't sound stupidly metaphysical. But art is alive somehow.''
    He laughs at himself: He is ``a bit of a Luddite,'' who doesn't own an iPod, though he carries a laptop around on tour to get at his e-mail. He holds in awe Art Tatum's ``ease of communication'' on the piano. And he has friends who ``tell me I should get more into Radiohead and Bjork,'' he says, ``But I can't say that music makes me sit up. They have an interesting ear for sound. But it's not going to change my life.''
    Looking back, Biss describes his childhood as idyllic and musically un-pressured. The house was full of luminaries -- violinist Josef Gingold, cellist Janos Starker, pianist Menachem Pressler and other fabled musicians on the Indiana University School of Music faculty -- but his parents didn't push him to perform, which ``was a lucky thing for me,'' he says.
    He claims not to have been a prodigy, by any means. Yet when he was 15 and performing at a chamber music festival in Jerusalem, he was anointed, in a way, by Isaac Stern, who arranged for Biss to be signed by the violinist's management at ICM in New York. ``I had this feeling that I was sort of plucked out of the air or something,'' he says. ``I mean, it was just a chamber music seminar. The idea that it was going to change my life . . .''
    The sentence trails off.
    Stern's interest created a psychological turning point for the young pianist: ``From that moment, my whole mindset began to change: `I have to prove myself.' '' Under his own self-imposed pressure, Biss began to question his talents. He became certain, as an example, that all of the other students at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, where he spent four years, were far, far better than he. Master classes with famous faculty became ``torturous'' for him.
    Yet Biss, even if he didn't know it, must have been shaping up as a performer. He was especially influenced by Leon Fleisher, the great pianist who is an institution at Curtis: ``He is one of the most formidable people and musicians I've ever met,'' Biss says, ``and he channels his power over people to force them closer to the music. He has no patience for sort of extraneous expressions of one's personality, and I think he's right about it.
    ``We live in an age of the cult of personality,'' Biss continues. ``He feels that the information you need is in the score.'' And within that, he adds, ``you have limitless possibilities for self-expression.''
    This defines Biss's approach: devoted to the notes, dedicated to understanding the composers' intentions, and yet quietly and forcefully his own man as an interpreter. It's a very different approach from, say, Lang Lang, the young Chinese virtuoso who is an unabashed showboat.
    The low-key approach works for Biss, who finds himself with an EMI recording contract and critical raves following many concerts. Slow building, his career has taken off in the past year or two and Biss now has performed with most of the major American orchestras: San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia.
    He is a well-rounded artist, active as a chamber musician (he and his mother perform regularly as a duo) and recitalist in this country and in Europe. Biss makes a point of performing contemporary works alongside established masterpieces. Sunday's Cal Performances solo recital will feature Beethoven, Schumann and Schoenberg, as well as new music by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Lewis Spratlan, whose ``Wonderer'' is said to be inspired by both the Big Bang and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4.
    Sounds like a curious piece. Well, Biss comes across as a fundamentally curious person. Living in New York, he attends Columbia University, where he is pursuing a second undergraduate degree (his first is from Indiana University) in literature and politics. Usually taking one course per semester, he has studied Thomas Hardy, W.H. Auden, and the workings of the European Union.
    He wants to bring something extra to the table when he sits down at the keyboard: ``It's dangerous that your life becomes very much about how the last concert went and how the next is going to go,'' he says. ``It should be about more than that. You can't hide when you play. When you play, it's a reflection of who you are and the more broadly based you are -- it has to reflect.''
    Biss has learned by now to have faith in his talents, but not too much faith: ``Believing your publicity is a very dangerous business,'' he says. ``It's a huge danger when you start to feel comfortable with the way you play. The truth is the music is so bottomless, there's so much there, that you can spend a lifetime feeling insecure about it. And it's not a bad thing.''

  2. #2
    Jonathan Biss: 25-year-old pianist has it in the genes

    ONE OF THE HOTTEST TALENTS OF THE MOMENT TO PLAY BERKELEY ON SUNDAY

    We all go through this: We look at someone, very young, very talented, and wonder how that person got to be who he or she is, so fast. Jonathan Biss, the 25-year-old pianist who is among the most talked-about new talents in classical music, credits his own success to luck and genes and, especially, to his mother who taught him, he says, ``that way of breathing in music.''
    Biss, who makes his Bay Area debut as a recitalist Sunday in Berkeley, is descended from a heavy musical lineage. First of all, his mother is Miriam Fried, a violinist with her own international career as a soloist and chamber music player. When Biss took up the piano at 6, he began playing with his mother: ``She was the first musician I knew,'' he says. ``I realize now I was so spoiled. It was really, really crazy. I thought everyone played the violin like that.''
    Fried teaches at Indiana University in Bloomington, where Biss grew up, absorbing music even in the bassinette. (Earlier, too; while pregnant with Biss, his mom performed as soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra.) His father is the violinist and violist Paul Biss, also a well-known performer and Indiana faculty member. If that's not enough, his grandmother was Russian cellist Raya Garbousova, a cult figure in her time.
    ``We have a letter from Casals saying that he had just conducted her in Haydn's D Major Symphony,'' Biss says, ``and that she was the finest cellist he ever heard. Her playing was sort of on a par with her personality, and she was quite a character. She was one of these outsized -- even though she was tiny, actually -- grande dame Russian ladies.''
    Her lanky grandson the pianist, by contrast, is contained -- though you might call Biss blissfully contained, given the focus and heart with which he plays.
    He is a confident performer, for sure. But his demeanor, once the applause begins, can be boyish and shy. In September, after Biss gave a crystal clear and freshly emotive performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall, the conductor seemingly had to coax the bespectacled Biss to come back out from the wings for a series of bows.
    By contrast again, the pianist is a fast, friendly, engaging, and almost gushing talker by phone; we recently spoke when he was in Boston, preparing for a performance with conductor James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
    He was about to perform Beethoven again (the Triple Concerto, with his mother playing the solo violin part) and had this to say, in a rush, about the almost personal relationship he feels with composers such as Beethoven and Schumann: ``The personalities of those composers are in the music so strongly that it can be almost blinding sometimes. You feel that you're interacting with them and, although it sounds ridiculous, you're in some kind of conversation with the music.
    ``I know it somehow sounds crazy,'' he reiterates, ``but sometimes it feels like it's responding to you. That's when I have to pinch myself. These great masterpieces, they're like organisms; you can communicate with them. I hope that doesn't sound stupidly metaphysical. But art is alive somehow.''
    He laughs at himself: He is ``a bit of a Luddite,'' who doesn't own an iPod, though he carries a laptop around on tour to get at his e-mail. He holds in awe Art Tatum's ``ease of communication'' on the piano. And he has friends who ``tell me I should get more into Radiohead and Bjork,'' he says, ``But I can't say that music makes me sit up. They have an interesting ear for sound. But it's not going to change my life.''
    Looking back, Biss describes his childhood as idyllic and musically un-pressured. The house was full of luminaries -- violinist Josef Gingold, cellist Janos Starker, pianist Menachem Pressler and other fabled musicians on the Indiana University School of Music faculty -- but his parents didn't push him to perform, which ``was a lucky thing for me,'' he says.
    He claims not to have been a prodigy, by any means. Yet when he was 15 and performing at a chamber music festival in Jerusalem, he was anointed, in a way, by Isaac Stern, who arranged for Biss to be signed by the violinist's management at ICM in New York. ``I had this feeling that I was sort of plucked out of the air or something,'' he says. ``I mean, it was just a chamber music seminar. The idea that it was going to change my life . . .''
    The sentence trails off.
    Stern's interest created a psychological turning point for the young pianist: ``From that moment, my whole mindset began to change: `I have to prove myself.' '' Under his own self-imposed pressure, Biss began to question his talents. He became certain, as an example, that all of the other students at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, where he spent four years, were far, far better than he. Master classes with famous faculty became ``torturous'' for him.
    Yet Biss, even if he didn't know it, must have been shaping up as a performer. He was especially influenced by Leon Fleisher, the great pianist who is an institution at Curtis: ``He is one of the most formidable people and musicians I've ever met,'' Biss says, ``and he channels his power over people to force them closer to the music. He has no patience for sort of extraneous expressions of one's personality, and I think he's right about it.
    ``We live in an age of the cult of personality,'' Biss continues. ``He feels that the information you need is in the score.'' And within that, he adds, ``you have limitless possibilities for self-expression.''
    This defines Biss's approach: devoted to the notes, dedicated to understanding the composers' intentions, and yet quietly and forcefully his own man as an interpreter. It's a very different approach from, say, Lang Lang, the young Chinese virtuoso who is an unabashed showboat.
    The low-key approach works for Biss, who finds himself with an EMI recording contract and critical raves following many concerts. Slow building, his career has taken off in the past year or two and Biss now has performed with most of the major American orchestras: San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia.
    He is a well-rounded artist, active as a chamber musician (he and his mother perform regularly as a duo) and recitalist in this country and in Europe. Biss makes a point of performing contemporary works alongside established masterpieces. Sunday's Cal Performances solo recital will feature Beethoven, Schumann and Schoenberg, as well as new music by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Lewis Spratlan, whose ``Wonderer'' is said to be inspired by both the Big Bang and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4.
    Sounds like a curious piece. Well, Biss comes across as a fundamentally curious person. Living in New York, he attends Columbia University, where he is pursuing a second undergraduate degree (his first is from Indiana University) in literature and politics. Usually taking one course per semester, he has studied Thomas Hardy, W.H. Auden, and the workings of the European Union.
    He wants to bring something extra to the table when he sits down at the keyboard: ``It's dangerous that your life becomes very much about how the last concert went and how the next is going to go,'' he says. ``It should be about more than that. You can't hide when you play. When you play, it's a reflection of who you are and the more broadly based you are -- it has to reflect.''
    Biss has learned by now to have faith in his talents, but not too much faith: ``Believing your publicity is a very dangerous business,'' he says. ``It's a huge danger when you start to feel comfortable with the way you play. The truth is the music is so bottomless, there's so much there, that you can spend a lifetime feeling insecure about it. And it's not a bad thing.''

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