Jonathan Biss: A Super, Human, Musical Mission

Niels Swinkels on June 11, 2013
Jonathan Biss
Jonathan Biss

For almost as long as he can remember, pianist Jonathan Biss has been passionate about Robert Schumann (1810–1856). He describes him as an “endlessly fascinating, seriously flawed, always human figure” whose music is “deeply personal and achingly vulnerable.” Biss has felt a special connection ever since he studied his first Schumann piece.

During the past concert season, Biss’ love affair with Schumann culminated in a chamber music series with 30-plus concerts, titled “Schumann: Under the Influence,” consisting of performances throughout Europe and North America, in venues like Wigmore Hall in London, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Carnegie Hall in New York, and Herbst Theatre in San Francisco for S.F. Performances, with additional concerts in Boston, Kansas City, and Philadelphia.

Biss was born in 1980 into a family of musicians. His paternal grandmother was one of the first well-known female cellists, the Russian cellist Raya Garbousova, for whom Samuel Barber wrote his cello concerto (1946). His parents, Miriam Fried and Paul Biss, are both violinists. On his website he describes growing up in a musical household, with music emanating from nearly every room in the house, including bathrooms (valued for their acoustical properties), and he notes that he started studying the piano at age 6 — though he claims to have made his professional debut as a fetus, when his visibly pregnant mother played the Mozart Violin Concerto in A Major with the Cleveland Orchestra under Lorin Maazel.

He also mentions that his “enthusiasm [for the piano] manifested itself from the very beginning of his studies” and has reached a degree of “obsessiveness and neurosis [that] remains today, as does the feeling that doing justice to great music is an ever unattainable goal.”

Biss is currently involved in recording all of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas for Onyx, a project that will likely take nine years. He is also a prolific blogger and writer. In a 19,000-word essay, titled “Beethoven’s Shadow,” which was published as a Kindle e-book, he has put down his thoughts on the interpretation of Beethoven.

This week, Biss will perform Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor with the San Francisco Symphony. “These concerts were not planned as part of the series for S.F. Performances, but we all agreed that it would make the most sense to play the Schumann concerto. To me, it forms a coda to a season-long immersion in Schumann’s music,” he said when SFCV recently caught up with him via phone from New York.

How was it, to be with Schumann for a whole season?

Schumann and I have been together for most of my life, but living with his music almost constantly for eight months was a pretty overwhelming experience. I felt slightly emotionally overwrought. His music is unbelievably personal. Getting to live with music like that is not necessarily easy but unbelievably gratifying.

The idea for this Schumann project was entirely yours, correct?

It was Ruth Felt from San Francisco Performances who asked if I was interested in doing some kind of project, something more broadly based than just a recital. But the specifics — the project, the repertoire, and the guest artists — were all my initiative.

And why Schumann?

I have long wanted to do something like this. I really feel that Schumann is enormously misunderstood and subject to all kinds of prejudice. There are the commonly held beliefs that only his early works had any quality; that, later in life, his mental frailty started creeping into the music; that his orchestration was poor; that he was only really skilled in writing for the piano; and that he may be unrivaled as a miniaturist, but didn’t succeed in large form. I have heard these prejudices over and over again, and I disagree with every one of them.

But maybe more significant is that the public knows so little of his music. Most people, even regular concertgoers, know Schumann for only a handful of piano works, maybe two of the song cycles, the piano concerto, and the piano quintet. And this is a composer who published more than 130 pieces.

I am afraid I have to plead guilty …

That’s very common, but it is not Schumann’s fault. I love the pieces that are famous, like the piano quintet and Kreisleriana, but I think that these are not his most characteristic works. The pieces that are a bit bizarre and off the beaten path are his most remarkable ones.

The idea behind the project was to ask the audience to accept Schumann for what he is. People listen to him through the lens of Beethoven, Schubert, or Brahms and then judge him for his failure to be like them!

Have you made a difference in Schumann’s life, so to speak?

Well, my goals are more modest than that. In the programs, I coupled Schumann with music from composers that he inspired: Berg, Janáček, even Kurtág. It may have helped some people to view him in a different and larger light, rather than as a sideshow of history.

How has Schumann changed your life, then?

The miracle of Schumann’s music is that it articulates something very personal. I really feel that Schumann gives expression to a part of me that otherwise would be silent. He is willing to explore feelings that are sometimes uncomfortable: loneliness and isolation and being slightly out of place. Having them expressed so beautifully through Schumann’s music is a real gift.

When did you receive that gift for the first time?

I remember learning the Kinderszenen when I was 9. I wouldn’t have been able to put it in words at that point, but I remember that it had a profound effect on me. I felt a connection to the music that has been constant ever since. There has never been a time when I wasn’t in a love affair with Schumann.

In a different way than with other composers?

I have a feeling of awe towards most of the music I love. I am currently recording Beethoven’s piano sonatas and I have this feeling of disbelief — how a human being could have created this music. With Schumann, I always felt like if I were a genius, then that is the music I would write. It speaks directly to me.

On your website you state that “doing justice to great music is an ever unattainable goal.”

“Unattainable,” to me, is not a bad thing. I don’t mean it as a source of frustration and mystery. Anything that is worth dedicating your life to is going to be difficult, complex, and multilayered. If I came to a point where I felt that I have said exactly what I want to say about a piece, I wouldn’t be interested in playing it anymore.

The miracle of Schumann’s music is that it articulates something very personal. I really feel that Schumann gives expression to a part of me that otherwise would be silent.

The beautiful thing about working on great music is that it changes as you change. You learn new things, and that reveals new aspects of the music that you want to delve into. It is really never-ending. There is music that I have revisited six or seven times, and I still feel like I have only scratched the surface. I love that. It is a great problem.

Is there life after Schumann?

There is indeed life after Schumann, although I am not about to stop playing his music. But since he has been sort of front and center, I had to postpone recording the third CD of Beethoven sonatas until after the summer. So that’s the most immediate thing. Next, I have to learn the Schoenberg piano concert, which I am excited about; and I just received the score of a new piano concerto that I will be premiering in April.

Does this mean you want to do another project?

Absolutely. I haven’t thought about what the next project would be, because I want it to develop organically; I am waiting for the idea to come to me. It is a lot more work than just playing a piano concerto in a concert program. When you play with an orchestra, you are a piece of the puzzle, and at best you can choose the concerto yourself; but you don’t have anything to say about the rest of the experience. I work with lots of wonderful conductors who put beautiful programs together, so it is usually fine, but being the author of the whole experience … yeah, that’s really gratifying.

The beautiful thing about working on great music is that it changes as you change.

You are almost 33, but for some reason still being talked about as if you are this young American wunderkind.

[Laughs] Yes, it is ironic, because even when I was of wunderkind age, I was not a wunderkind. One thing you learn when you are involved in a public profession is that you are not what people say about you, good or bad. You have to create a self-concept that is not too easily influenced.

I am not sure what it means that I am “American.” I was born and raised here and have an American passport, but in terms of being an American musician, it doesn’t really mean much. Probably the most significant part about growing up as an artist in the States, for better or worse, is that it is a such a loose society. It is not defined by any set of very strong cultural traditions. As an American artist, you have the option to choose from a variety of different influences. It would be much easier to know what it means to be a French, German, or Russian pianist.

You recently followed in the footsteps of your teacher Leon Fleisher and joined the faculty at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

I already gave the occasional master class, but when they asked me, it seemed like an unbelievable opportunity. Curtis is small and able to provide a lot of flexibility. Without that, I wouldn’t be able to take a teaching job.

The students are at such an incredibly high level that you end up working on music in an extremely creative way; you are not dealing with remedial problems. I find it incredibly enlightening to teach. You learn so much about your own musical priorities by having to verbalize them. Much of your playing is totally instinctive, but when you have to explain it, you really understand much more about why you do something. The struggle of trying to find my own reasons is the great fun of teaching.

How does Leon Fleisher feature in your own teaching?

I occasionally find myself quoting him, which is really embarrassing. I like to talk about music, but he has a way of really getting right to the point of something, which is quite fantastic. I have come to appreciate this more and more since I started to teach. The struggle of trying to find my own reasons is the great fun of teaching.

Is that why you wrote this long essay about Beethoven?

Yes. I like to be engaged with music on as many fronts as possible. My relationship with music is very different when I am playing it from when I am writing about it from when I am teaching it. It is great to give it as many layers as possible, and it is a way of making my relationship with music a little more “ventilated.” The relationship between a performer and the music he plays is objectively an interesting topic. I wrote this essay for people who love music and go to concerts and wonder what informs a performer’s feelings towards the music he is playing.

Can you give a brief summary?

I have to paraphrase myself, but the last line of the piece is something like: ”Beethoven is simultaneously superhuman and deeply human.” And that is impressive. What Beethoven achieves is so remarkable, and yet his personality is so embedded in his music that it is compelling on every level.

How is Beethoven different from Schumann?

Beethoven is addressing the universe. Schumann is addressing some like-minded individual.

Beethoven is addressing the universe. Schumann is addressing some like-minded individual.

You wrote that you somehow feel protective of Schumann. I don’t gather that you have the same feelings for Beethoven.

No. When I play Beethoven, I am protective of myself. His personality can really overwhelm you; I have to leave a corner for myself in the room.

The writing on your website shows that you are very funny and full of self-deprecating humor.

I feel very passionate about music, and playing it well is a sacred responsibility. What I do, I take incredibly seriously. But I have this fear that I might take myself just as seriously.

Maybe it is just a guard against that. You know: “Beethoven is great, Schumann is great … I’m just some guy.” That is the reality of it.