Jonathan Biss Finds Bliss With Beethoven

Lily O'Brien on September 11, 2019
Jonathan Biss | Credit: Benjamin Ealovega

Pianist Jonathan Biss doesn’t just play music — he immerses himself in it, and for the past decade, Beethoven has been his muse. The 39-year-old virtuoso just finished recording all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, a nine-year, nine-disk enterprise, and now he’s taking the show on the road. He will be performing all of them in a series of seven individual concerts, on a tour that makes its first stop in the Bay Area. Marking a season that celebrates Beethoven’s 250th birthday, Cal Performances will present Biss at Hertz Hall in Berkeley on Sept. 21 and 22, Oct. 12 and 13, Dec. 15, and March 17 and 18.

An acclaimed soloist on concert stages worldwide, Biss also teaches at his alma mater, Curtis Institute of Music. In 2013, he created a MOOC (massive online open course) there that deeply explores the creation of Beethoven’s sonatas, from the technical, artistic, biographical, spiritual, and historical perspectives that has attracted more than 150,000 students from all over the world. (Enrollment is available for free online via the Coursera website.) An eloquent and contemplative writer, he has also authored several books, including Beethoven’s Shadow, Coda, and A Pianist Under the Influence, and undertaken various projects involving music by composers both living and dead.

Born to parents who were both professional violinists in Bloomington, Indiana, Biss said he was never attracted to the violin, though he did consider the cello. Following in the footsteps of his older brother, he began studying piano when he was 6, and has no regrets, because that’s what led him to what he believes is “the greatest repertoire ever imaginable.”

Biss’s fascination and passion for Beethoven’s music was palpable in a recent chat by telephone about his upcoming tour.

You have just completed the last of nine recordings featuring all 32 of Beethoven’s Sonatas. How does that feel?

My standing joke is that I am ready to retire — or die. When I finished the last take of the last sonata, which was Opus 111, I had this overwhelming feeling of accomplishment, sadness, and exhilaration. Recordings give this illusion of permanence, but I will never be done with these pieces. I will be spending a whole year playing them — it’s really kind of just the beginning.

Jonathan Biss | Credit: Benjamin Ealovega

What drew you so strongly to Beethoven’s Sonatas?

There is something about the personality of Beethoven that is so overwhelming, and I think that the sonatas are the pieces that go the deepest, that show him at his most exploratory, his most inventive, and at his most spiritual. Even though the sonatas are really different from one another, a spiritual essence is there in just about every one. I think that’s why his music feels larger than life.

What do you think has made Beethoven’s music so eternal?

I think the reason that we are still so drawn to Beethoven’s music all these years after his death is that he is asking the biggest questions. For him, writing music is a way of coming to terms with his place in the universe, which I guess is what we are all trying to do; he could put it into sound in the most really remarkable way.

What separates great music from just good music, is that with music that is not quite great, you come to an end of what there is to know and understand about it. But with great music, you don’t come to an end. You wake up every day a slightly different person and it changes with you.

What are you looking forward to on this tour?

I have been playing these pieces for a very long time, but I have been doing it while doing a million other things at the same time and I’m incredibly excited about having this year in front of me where I really delve into this repertoire to the exclusion of anything else. I feel so enriched by this music, and knowing that I have to play it will force me to dig deeper than I would have otherwise. It’s an immersive focus that I’ve really been craving and looking forward to.

Have you ever wished you had played an instrument other than piano?

The sheer volume and the sheer greatness of the repertoire make it impossible to wish I played something else instead. But I do find myself struck by the limitations of the piano. On the piano, you pretty much can’t do what every other instrumentalist can, which is to shape a single note. You play the note on the piano, and it begins to die immediately. So you have to get very expert in the art of illusions to make a phrase on the piano in a way that is not necessary on a string or wind instrument or for the voice. There is this little jealous part of me that wishes I was able to do that.

What motivates you to write about music?

I am happy to have a relationship with music that gets communicated in as many different ways as possible. What I love about writing is that it forces me to find ways of expressing things and to clarify some of my feelings, which are still internal. It’s not always easy to find the words, but looking for them somehow deepens my understanding.

What have you learned from working with living composers?

It is very important for me to feel that music, which is so central to my life, is not a thing of the past. Working with living composers has taught me a huge amount about how the creative process works — how they want their pieces to be played and listened to and thought about.  Most composers want you to be free and expansive and gestural and exuberant with their music. They don’t want you to feel boxed in. That’s been quite a lesson for me.

Thousands of people have signed up for your MOOC class about Beethoven’s Sonatas. Why do you think it has been so popular?

This suggests to me that there is a huge craving for more information about music and for a deeper understanding of how a performer relates to the music they play. I am not a musicologist, but I have spent my life studying and playing these pieces, and I think people are much more interested in classical music than we imagine to be the case.

What do you like about teaching?

Teaching is fantastic because it is a way of engaging with music that is not egotistical. It’s not about me and my concert and my practice schedule and my needs, but it’s about trying to bring someone else further in their journey with music, and I am very happy to have the opportunity to do that in my life.

What does performing do for you?

Performing is a constant in my life, and is always going to be the center of what I do. The music itself is so compelling, and when you know you are going to go onstage, and that there will be an audience, and that the concert will happen in real time, that you will be playing those pieces from start to finish, it focuses your energy in a way that nothing else does. And of course, sharing it with people is fantastic. I wouldn’t be a performer if I didn’t want to do that.

What will your next project be?

Schubert might be my next area of focus, which feels appropriate after all this, because Schubert died one year after Beethoven. And that one year of music that he wrote after Beethoven’s death may be the most astonishing year’s worth of music ever. I have the feeling that it might be the next immersion, but right now my head and heart are so in Beethoven, it’s hard to say for sure.

Jonathan Biss | Credit: Benjamin Ealovega

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