April 6, 2009
Pianist Jonathan Biss talks about what it's like to grow up in a family of musicians, finding time for tennis and Philip Roth, and what's in store for Bay Area audiences.
Both of your parents are professional musicians: Your mother is violinist Miriam Fried, and your father is violist and violinist Paul Biss. What was family life like growing up?
When I was eight years old it occurred to me that there were professions other than “Musician.” When I was younger it seemed like not only the natural way of life, but the only way of life. It was a non-traditional arrangement since my mother was the one traveling, but it worked.
What do you like the most about performing with your mother?
We speak the same language. We feel similarly about so much — the way you breathe when you play and an instinctual sense of musical line. It’s wonderful to play with people you share that with, regardless if they are family.
What do you like the least?
Somehow with us it really works well. It’s weird because when I was a teenager there were times when we fought about other things, but I can’t remember any particular musical conflicts. She has made comments backstage about the state in which my shoes were tied … or not.
Do you immerse yourself in a few composers at a time?
Yes, usually there is a composer that occupies much of my time. Currently it’s Chopin, Kurtag, and Schubert, who is taking over an immense part of my life. Previously it was Mozart and Beethoven. Perhaps these cycles evolve with my personality and passions.
Do you consider yourself a perfectionist?
It depends on how you define perfection. I think of great music as something that is endless in its possibilities and in terms of what it needs to have brought to it. I’m not consumed with the idea of a flawless performance. My relationship with music is about trying to go beyond where I am at the time with any given piece.
How do you feel about music and the digital media explosion on sites like YouTube for example?
My feelings are in flux. Half of me finds the Internet an unbelievably exciting development — it’s changing the way we think about music, the way we record music, and maybe even make music. The other half thinks we’re destroying an established order too fast for us to replace it with something good.
How do you spend your free time?
I don’t get much time to pursue other interests. I would describe myself as a tennis freak and I read a lot while traveling.
Do you play tennis or watch it?
Both. I don’t play as often as I’d want to but if I’m home for four days I might. I’ll watch whatever tournament is on TV for hours — it doesn’t matter who’s playing. It’s an obsession. I could tell you some pretty obscure statistics from the 1970s.
Who are your favorite authors?
I’m sort of all over the map. Recently I’ve been reading fiction — Philip Roth, Virginia Wolff, David Copperfield. A bit of everything.
That might explain why you are such a good writer, which is apparent on your blog.
The main reason for the blog is that it gets me writing, fleshing out aspects of my musical personality that people would otherwise not know. My life is so busy it would be easy to find excuses to not do it. But if I haven’t posted in too long, I’ll find a way to start and once I do it’s invigorating.
My next project is an all Schubert record including the C Major Sonata that I’m doing in San Francisco and the big A Major 959 Sonata. I’m really excited about recording it live at the Wigmore Hall, hoping to reproduce the spirit of a performance.