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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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When Jonathan Biss went to Carnegie Hall for a rehearsal late last month, ahead of his 12th performance there, he discovered that backstage had been renovated. Initially he couldn’t find his way. Then, after reorienting himself, he stepped into the hall—the most prestigious venue in classical music; where Tchaikovsky gave its opening concert in 1891—and played through his entire recital program slowly and deliberately. The program had been selected with Biss’ characteristic precision and thoughtfulness, a process that began with two certainties: that he would play Beethoven, and that he would close with the “Waldstein,” written from 1803-4 and the first of the three notable sonatas of Beethoven’s so-called middle period. To juxtapose the bright, public “Waldstein,” Biss added Beethoven’s Sonata No. 27, Op. 90, a more introverted piece with two highly contrasting movements.

For the first half of the program, Biss chose Brahms’ “Klavierstücke,” selections from György Kurtág’s “Játékok” (Hungarian for “Games”), and the two nocturnes from Chopin’s Op. 62 and his “Polonaise-Fantasie.” Kurtág, a contemporary composer, is rooted in the past. The Brahms and Chopin were among the last pieces that each wrote. The fulcrum of the program was, then, a sense that there is almost no post-Beethoven composer who isn’t influenced by him.

The rehearsal lasted three hours, in part because Biss needed 45 minutes to adjust to the stage and the hall being five times bigger than any venue he’d recently played. Around 2 p.m., he consulted with the piano technician. Then, out of habit, he ate an embarrassingly big lunch, before heading back to his apartment and to bed.

In the past few years, Biss, who is 33, has strengthened the case that he can help extend the tradition of great Jewish classical pianists—from Vladimir Horowitz to Vladimir Ashkenazy, from Arthur Rubinstein to Emanuel Ax—into the 21st century. He has become publicly vibrant in the mainstream mold of few classical musicians, especially those who favor thoughtfulness and emotional interpretations over showmanship, bravado, and flashy repertoire. Biss has done this not just by continuing to book a full, international schedule of concerts and earning laudatory reviews in the New York Times and The New Yorker, but by embracing new technological outlets in publishing and education and by undertaking one of the most ambitious recording tasks for a modern pianist—all of which revolve around Beethoven. He has written two e-books (Beethoven’s Shadow, the first Kindle Single by a classical musician), and he has taught a wildly popular MOOC (massive open online course) on Beethoven’s sonatas. He has also recorded 10 of the sonatas, on his way to completing the full cycle of 32, having just released the latest installment, Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3, before his recent date at Carnegie Hall. Recording or performing the complete sonatas remains one of the most important and challenging achievements in classical music. As Biss knows, it’s a body of work that can be endlessly mined for meaning.

(Courtesy of Onyx Classics/Harmonia Mundi)

On the night of the concert, shortly after 8 p.m., Biss made what is known as the Carnegie Hall “long walk” from offstage to the centered, isolated piano. His shoulders hunched forward slightly, and one arm swung like a pendulum, while the other remained still. Wearing his shirt buttoned to the top, sans tie, and sporting a relatively new beard, grown out of laziness, he bowed to the five levels of the nearly packed hall.

Physically, Biss is an animated pianist, helpless, as musicians are, to his tics. (After hitting a certain sweat threshold, he frequently pushes up his slipping glasses.) During melodic passages, he tended to recline his torso and swivel his head, as if to nod, “No, this cannot be this beautiful”; this occurred repeatedly during the Brahms and the Chopin. In a capricious moment, such as the entire brief, sixth Kurtág selection “(… and round and round it goes),” he chased flurries of notes that were far from one another. The piece ended abruptly, with Biss’ face close to the keyboard. Half the audience members allowed themselves an amused laugh.

In the second half, the Sonata Op. 90—two movements requiring less than 15 minutes to play—felt like a warm-up, the sort of piece that is necessary, even if few people came to hear it, to prime the finale. So, when he reached the “Waldstein,” Biss attacked it, taking a brisk tempo. Applauding between a piece’s movements, rather than waiting for the entire piece to end, is a modern audience faux pas. But Biss played so energetically the audience couldn’t help itself; it burst into applause the moment he finished the Allegro con brio.

Upon striking the final chord of the third movement, Biss raised and held his arms half-mast, a restrained triumph, and the audience rose. For the encore, he did something he hadn’t tried before: He played the Intermezzo in B minor from the Brahms, the movement with which he’d opened the recital, bringing the concert full circle.

David Ludwig, an American composer, former classmate of Biss’, and now dean of Artistic Programs at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, had been sitting with Biss’ family and close friends in a first-tier box. A half hour after the show, he tweeted, from a New York City taxi: “Jonathan Biss just tore my heart out, warmed it up, and then put it back in. (In a good way).”

***

Earlier that week, at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, Biss sat drinking green tea, a folded copy of the Times wedged in his black strap briefcase. Jazz, which he loves listening to but has by his own admission no clue how to play, was the background music. He is slender, on a healthy diet (“Everything in moderation”) and an exercise regimen meant to withstand the rigor of frequent travel across many time zones (jogging and yoga at least five times per week). He wore relaxed jeans and a casual shirtsleeve button-up. Unlike some of the most famous hands in the history of classical piano—Rachmaninoff’s reach to a twelfth; Anton Rubinstein’s fat fingers, as wide as the white keys—his are unremarkable.

Biss was born in Bloomington, Ind., where his parents were professors at Indiana University, to a family of Jewish classical musicians. His mother, Miriam Fried, the Romanian-born Israeli violinist, won the Paganini International Competition in 1968 and came to the United States as a protégé of Isaac Stern. His father, Paul Biss, is a violinist, violist, and conductor whose own mother was the celebrated Russian cellist Raya Garbousova. Garbousova developed carpal tunnel syndrome around the time Jonathan was born, but he grew up with numberless testimonies to her musical prowess. Apparently, the Russian composer Alexander Glazunov praised her so highly when she was young that her father refused to repeat Glazunov’s words so as to prevent her from developing an ego. Years later, when Biss was cleaning out her house after his grandfather passed away, he found a note in which the great Catalan cellist Pablo Casals called her “without a doubt the finest cellist I have ever heard.”

“This is a woman who played Ping-Pong with Horowitz,” Biss told me. “She knew everyone of that generation. She also read chamber music with Einstein. She complained that he played out of tune. I would think that’s not really the point.”

Raised in such a household, Biss was consumed by music. “It was a spoken language,” he said. “Before I could even play two notes, I felt it in my ears, my head, my mind, and my heart.” Once, when his father was conducting Verdi’s opera Rigoletto, Biss read the score, built the set out of cardboard boxes, created finger puppets, and acted out the entire thing, making his parents sit and watch. He was 6-and-a-half. Each summer, as a kid, he spent two months in Herzliya, visiting his mother’s entire family, descended from Hungarian Holocaust survivors who moved to Romania and then Israel.

Earlier that year, Biss had begun pianos lessons with Karen Taylor, a local teacher whose gift was imparting her enthusiasm for music onto eager young students. He learned his first Beethoven sonata at age 9 and, two years later, began studying with Evelyne Brancart, a Belgian pianist on faculty at Indiana. She trained him, Biss said, “very, very rigorously.” As they worked on an assortment of music, his ambition was often relegated to specific pieces, like Beethoven’s tempestuous “Appassionata” sonata, even if playing them meant maxing out his physical capabilities. He practiced incessantly, without being coaxed; oftentimes his mother would have to ask him to stop. At age 13, he won a competition to play Mendelssohn’s Concerto No. 1 in G minor with the Indianapolis Symphony. The opportunity—“to ride the sound of an orchestra,” as he called it—thrilled him. “From that point on,” he said, “my view was a little more specific in terms of wanting to be a performer.”

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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