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A Big Jewish Pianist With Unremarkable Hands

Jonathan Biss stops by Carnegie Hall on his way to recording the full cycle of 32 Beethoven sonatas

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Jonathan Biss, 2013. (Benjamin Ealovega)
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Growing up, Biss never verbalized his desire to become a professional musician. But his parents were attuned to his rapid technical progress, his appreciation for the nuance of music, his need to express himself. When, for instance, a schoolteacher assigned an open-ended four-page essay, he wrote 15 pages about Schumann. Just because his parents were musicians, however, didn’t mean they believed in forcing their children to play an instrument; when Daniel, their eldest, stopped practicing piano, they allowed him to quit. Certainly, they never labeled Jonathan a prodigy. If their son was going to study piano in college, they wanted him to do so with someone who could nurture his career without thrusting him into competitions. The person they had in mind was the renowned American pianist Leon Fleisher.

The year after Biss played with the Indianapolis Symphony, his parents took him to Baltimore, where Fleisher was teaching at Johns Hopkins’ Peabody Institute. (Biss’ father still claims that the best recital he’s ever heard was in the early 1960s, when Fleisher played the Liszt and Schubert B flat sonatas.) By coincidence, when Biss arrived at Peabody, Fleisher’s students were working through the entire cycle of Beethoven sonatas. Captivated, Biss sat outside, breaking only for dinner. Many of the pieces, like the lengthy, virtuoso “Hammerklavier” and Op. 111, the final sonata, he was hearing for the first time. The playing lasted until midnight.

The next day, Biss and his family met with Fleisher. “He seemed like a giant,” Biss recalled, referring to both Fleisher’s physical size and his professional stature. “You look into those eyes, and he makes an impression.” Biss played repertoire; Fleisher instructed him for over an hour and showed interest in what Biss had to say. “He asked questions,” Biss said. “I had the impression that my relationship to music turned him on in some way.”

Biss returned to Bloomington, where he was a freshman in high school. The school system deemed his ongoing studies with Brancart (lessons, chamber music, theory classes) accredited electives, so he took core curriculum in the morning and practiced the rest of the day. The arrangement allowed him to build the muscle memory requisite for aspiring professionals while keeping friends and hobbies outside of music. He graduated in three years and followed Fleisher to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

***

As Biss ventured into the music world, he impressed seemingly everyone. The first conversation he had with the composer David Ludwig, at the Marlboro Festival in Vermont, consisted of an argument about Schoenberg’s essays and musicology. Ludwig, whose uncle and grandfather are the pianists Peter and Rudolf Serkin, had graduated from Oberlin a few years earlier. Biss was 16. “Jonathan lives and breathes music,” Ludwig said. “He drinks it in.”

Two summers later, Miles Cohen, now the artistic director for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society but then working in Marlboro’s scheduling office, immediately tagged Biss as a prodigy. “There was very little musically that Jonathan couldn’t handle,” Cohen said. “Physically, there might have been pianists his age who could razzle-dazzle you with really virtuosic repertoire. But Jonathan had a tremendous musical mind.” He found Biss mature particularly in the way he interacted with older musicians. “He was versatile. Many students want to play the bigger repertoires, the Brahms piano quartets, Schumann’s piano quintet, the Beethoven piano concertos, but Jonathan gravitated toward playing with singers.”

Despite their age difference, Ludwig and Biss attended Curtis at the same time. (Curtis students are admitted entirely on merit; the school has the lowest acceptance rate of anywhere in the country, at 4 percent.) Living on the same floor as Biss, Ludwig often found himself listening to Biss’ constant practicing from outside his door. He loved composing for Biss. “Jonathan’s a great virtuoso and has incredible technique,” he said, “but you when you hear him play, that’s not what he conveys. He conveys the ideas in the music, the emotions in the music, the intentions of the composer. His playing is always about the music, never about him.”

As a professional, Biss has returned to Marlboro as an instructor, and he’s held Curtis’ Neubauer Family Chair in Piano Studies since 2010, but not until this past fall did he become publicly known for his teaching, when, through Curtis, and in partnership with Coursera, he taught the MOOC on Beethoven’s sonatas. Over 35,000 participants from 124 countries signed up; they took quizzes, wrote peer-reviewed essays, participated in Google hangouts, and twice gathered at coffee shops. (Completing the course earns one a “Statement of Accomplishment.”) Some had zero prior knowledge of the subject matter; others were professional musicians. To make the material interesting for both, while whittling it down to a manageable load, and then writing the five hourlong lectures, Biss prepared for hundreds of hours. The MOOC was so popular that it conferred upon him a level of celebrity afforded typically to rock and pop musicians. As the Wall Street Journal reported in the wake of the class’s success, he had groupies.

The MOOC, which will rerun in March, correlated perfectly with Biss’ ongoing project of recording the cycle of sonatas. In the canon of classical music, the cycle is considered a cause for lore. Hans von Bülow, a 19th-century German pianist, was the first to perform the cycle; Artur Schnabel, an Austrian pianist who taught Leon Fleisher (and who is Biss’ favorite pianist), became the first to record it. The Argentine-born Israeli Daniel Barenboim (who instructed Biss in a master class broadcast nationally on PBS) recorded the cycle before he was 18; Richard Goode (Biss’ friend and colleague and former mentor at Marlboro) became the first American-born pianist to do it.

Biss was 23 when a concert presenter in a major American city asked him to perform the cycle. He was enticed. Since witnessing the students at Peabody, he’d known he wanted to play it. At the time, though, he knew only 10 sonatas and only one of the ultra-challenging last five. To learn the rest, he would have to immerse himself in them at the expense of expanding his repertoire of composers. It mattered little that, in the previous three years, he’d distinguished himself with his New York recital debut at the 92nd Street Y, his New York Philharmonic debut under Kurt Masur, and his selection as the first American BBC New Generation Artist. He set the recording project aside.

Over the next seven years, he learned eight more sonatas, from different periods of Beethoven’s compositional career. He also played Beethoven’s five concerti, most of the chamber music, and other solo works for piano, and listened to and studied the symphonies and the string quartets, which seemed to him Beethoven’s most personal statements. He played, studied, and recorded across Bach, Handel, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Schoenberg. He was a fuller musician developing a style sui generis—and enough removed from the version of himself whose playing had, as a colleague told him around the time he left Curtis, begun to sound “uncomfortably” like Fleisher’s. By 2010, Biss was ready not just to play the cycle, but to record it.

Still, his process was lengthy. To prepare just one sonata for recording, he’d need an initial six weeks of sitting at the piano for hours each day, wrestling with the piece’s physical demands, before searching for interpretative solutions. Then he needed to shelve the piece, study it further, perform it, shelve it again, and perform it again—at which point, finally, he could record it. Space was key; “letting [a piece] rest while the mind and fingers are occupied with other things,” he wrote in Beethoven’s Shadow, “often leads to more development than the actual, quantifiable work does.”

His first recordings were released in January of 2011, when he gave his debut recital at Carnegie Hall; the most recent, Vol. 3, just came out. It consists of three sonatas in three major keys: No. 15 in D major, Op. 28; No. 16 in G major, Op. 31 No. 1; and No. 21 in C major, Op. 53, the “Waldstein.” For promotion, Biss has embarked on a two-month cross-country recital tour (with a three-week interlude to play chamber music in the Netherlands and Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor in Sweden and Texas). The Monday after the Carnegie Hall concert, Biss was already in a hotel room on the eastern edge of France, less than a block from the border with Switzerland. His next five months are booked: this tour, then chamber music, Schumann and Mozart concerti, his first performance of Schoenberg’s piano concerto (with the Seattle Symphony), the world and European premieres of Bernard Rands’ Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, a recital at the Louvre featuring the “Waldstein.” He wants, he told me over the phone, to find time for another writing project—the MOOC occupied him fully last year—but he hasn’t a clue about a subject.

And then those Beethoven sonatas. With 10 sonatas recorded, 22 remain. Ideally, he would budget two years per piece—or 44 years of total work to go. But his plan has been to release one disc per year, and, despite not having a contract with his label, Onyx, he has stubbornly stuck on schedule. “I want to start coming back to them,” he said of the sonatas. “I know that I’ll play them better, 10, 15, 20, 30 years down the road for having gone through this.”

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A Big Jewish Pianist With Unremarkable Hands

Jonathan Biss stops by Carnegie Hall on his way to recording the full cycle of 32 Beethoven sonatas

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