20 (PLUS) QUESTIONS WITH: Pianist Jonathan Biss

Classic Arts Features   20 (PLUS) QUESTIONS WITH: Pianist Jonathan Biss
In the midst of a cross-country U.S. recital tour (which includes an April 14 stop at Zankel Hall), Biss filled out our questionnaire- providing detailed answers and insights, some of which may surprise you. He wraps up his current traveling program April 20.

Since making his New York Philharmonic debut in 2001 when he was 21, Jonathan Biss's international career has flourished through his orchestral, recital, and chamber music performances in North America, Europe, and Asia, and through his acclaimed EMI Classics recordings. Mr. Biss is a former student of Leon Fleisher at The Curtis Institute of Music and the third generation in a family of musicians that includes his grandmother, cellist Raya Garbousova, and his parents, violinist Miriam Fried and violist/violinist Paul Biss.

His diverse repertoire ranges from Mozart and Beethoven, through the Romantics to Janšček and Schoenberg as well as works by contemporary composers, including commissions from Leon Kirchner and Lewis Spratlan.

With a reputation for intriguing programs, artistic maturity and versatility, the 28-year-old American pianist has been recognized with numerous awards, including the 2005 Leonard Bernstein Award and the Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award. Mr. Biss's newest recording as an EMI Classics artist is a CD of Mozart Piano Concertos 21 and 22 with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Two previous recordings: all Beethoven and all-Schumann recitals: won an Edison Award and a Diapason d'Or Award, respectively. Mr. Biss blogs about his life as a musician at www.jonathanbiss.com.


1. A few works of classical music that you adore:

Obviously, far too many to mention, so I'll just include some recent fixations: Schubert's Schwanengesang; Haydn's Creation; Kurtšg's Jšt_kok; Janšček's Jenufa; Beethoven's Op. 127.

2. Classical music recordings that you treasure:

Szigeti and Bart‹k playing Beethoven, Debussy, and Bart‹k's own music at the Library of Congress; Schnabel playing Mozart's A minor Rondo; more or less everything we have of Dinu Lipatti (which is not nearly enough).

3. Favorite non-classical musicians and/or recordings:

Sarah Vaughn; Radiohead; Gabe Kahane; Art Tatum.

4. Music that makes you cry _ any genre:

The emergence of major in literally any minor key work of Schubert.

5. Definitely underrated work(s) or composer (s):

Mendelssohn _ somehow our age misconstrues his incredible sense of proportion as a lack of passion. Dvorak _ I think people have the idea that really great music shouldn't be that much fun. Five years ago I would have said Janšček, but I think he's slowly getting his due.

6. Possibly overrated work(s) or composer (s):

Oy, lightning rod. I have a lot of difficulty with Shostakovich _ aside from all the complicated political questions, his music has never felt emotionally honest to me. But I'm weary of saying "overrated." I don't think that the people who love his music are wrong just because I don't feel what they feel.

7. Live music performance (s) you attended _ any genre _ that you'll never forget:

Leon Fleisher's Carnegie Hall Recital in 2003 _ his first two-handed recital there in over four decades. Aside from all the extra-musical significance, it featured the most remarkable performance of the Schubert B-flat Sonata that I ever hope or expect to hear.

8. A few relatively recent films you love:

Man on Wire; Life is Beautiful; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Being John Malkovich.

9. A few films you consider classics:

A Day at the Races; Raising Arizona; Dr. Strangelove; Love and Death. I like my classics quirky.

10. A few books that are important to you (and why):

Oh, again, too many. Recently, Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer. I love all the Zuckerman novels, and it was interesting to see him as a young man/artist, negotiating the line between taking his work seriously and taking himself too seriously _ a line with which I am familiar! And I just reread Charles Rosen's The Classical Style, which is probably the only book (not by a composer) to have seriously influenced the way I think about music.

11. Thing(s) about yourself that you're most proud of:

That I met my deadline for finishing this interview.

12. Thing(s) about yourself that you're embarrassed by:

The crippling neurosis that makes answering 20 simple questions such a problem. My limitless capacity for sitting in front of a television (quality of programming not relevant).

13. Three things you can't live without:

Music, family, and Korean food.

14. "When I want to get away from it all I..."

Turn off all my portable electronic devices even though I'm not on an airplane. Listen to music which a) is not classical, and b) does not include a piano. Go to Marlboro.

15. "People are surprised to find out that I..."

Love Tchaikovsky. Have an encyclopedic knowledge of tennis trivia. Only learned to use chopsticks at the age of 26.

16. "My favorite cities are..."

New York, Amsterdam, London, San Francisco.

17. "I have a secret crush on..."

What sort of secret crush do you advertise on PlaybillArts??

18. "My most obvious guilty pleasure is..."

Gelato, which I consider to be a perfectly acceptable breakfast (not to mention lunch and/or dinner), and on which I spend the sort of money annually that others spend on automobile maintenance.

19. "I'd really love to meet..."

Barack Obama. Stunningly unoriginal, but very true nonetheless.

20. "I never understood why..."

Some people in the United States are so fanatically opposed to the National Endowment of the Arts, when a stick of gum costs more than most people's tax contribution to it.


21. Question you wish someone would ask you (and the answer to that question):

Q: What concerns you most about the state of music in the 21st century?

A: I'm glad you asked. I worry that young musicians are being asked to adjust to the changing world (good) from a marketing point of view, not an artistic one (very bad). If musicians don't at least start out from a place of energetic idealism, they are doomed to spend their lives doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons.


April 5-20: U.S. Recital Tour
Mozart Sonata in c minor, K. 457
Kurtšg Selections from Jšt_kok
Schubert Sonata in C Major, D. 840
Chopin Barcarolle F-sharp Major, Op. 60
Chopin Three Mazurkas, Op. 59
Chopin Nocturne in E Major, Op. 62, No. 2
Chopin Ballade No. 4 in f minor, Op. 52

April 14
New York, NY
Zankel Hall

April 15
Schenectady, NY
Memorial Chapel at Union College

April 18
San Francisco, CA
Herbst Theatre

April 20
Fort Collins, CO
Lincoln Center Performance Hall

For further information and full performance schedule, visit www.jonathanbiss.com.

Past installments of 20 (PLUS) QUESTIONS:

Tenor Ian Bostridge

Soprano Danielle de Niese

New-Music Sextet eighth blackbird 

Composer and Violinist Mark O'Connor 

Composer Jake Heggie

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon

Pianist David Greilsammer


Albert Imperato, a music promoter who co-founded 21C Media Group in January 2000, writes frequently about the arts for various publications and blogs. 

His new series, 20 (PLUS) QUESTIONS, is his take on (and nod to) Vanity Fair's "Proust Questionnaire."

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