In Their Own Words: A Chat With Pianist Jonathan Biss

Classic Arts Features   In Their Own Words: A Chat With Pianist Jonathan Biss
The young virtuoso will join the internationally renowned Orpheus Chamber Orchestra for a Dec. 6 performance at Carnegie Hall before they collectively embark on a 2009 European tour that spans from Italy to Slovenia.

The program - which centers around Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major - also includes the Overture to Haydn's L'infedelta delusa, Ives' The Unanswered Question and Elliott Carter's Symphony No. 1.

The performance of this Mozart concerto with Biss follows the Orchestra's recent collaboration with the pianist on their second album for EMI Classics, an all-Mozart recording. Of the concerto, Biss says, "For me, playing Mozart Concerti is probably the greatest joy I have as a pianist. This concerto is among my absolute favorites - its Andante movement is one of the most beautiful things he ever wrote - both dramatic and touching in equal measure. When it was first performed, the audience had such a strong reaction to it that they insisted it be repeated immediately."

The American pianist made his New York Philharmonic debut in 2001, and has since appeared with many of the foremost orchestras in the United States and Europe, making him one of the most highly regarded young pianists on the scene. He is a frequent performer at international music festivals, and gives recitals in major music capitals around the world. Mr. Biss has been a member of Chamber Music Society Two at Lincoln Center, and is a frequent participant at the Marlboro Music Festival, where he has toured with Musicians from Marlboro on several occasions. Additional credits include frequent collaborations with the Borromeo and Mendelssohn quartets.

Biss recently took a moment to chat with Aaron Grad about Mozart, Orpheus, and his approach to live performance.


How did you come to embark on this new recording and series of performances with Orpheus?

The first time I worked with Orpheus was in 2004 with the Mendelssohn D Minor Concerto, and we played four or five concerts including one at Carnegie Hall. I can certainly speak for myself, and I hope I can speak for Orpheus as well, in saying that it was a very happy experience. A year or two later I signed a contract with EMI and we started talking about orchestra recordings, and pretty much the first idea that I had was to make a Mozart recording with Orpheus. Of course there were a million details to work out, but I really wanted it to happen, and I am thrilled that it did end up happening.

Why did you choose to record Mozart?

Even separate from the Orpheus aspect of the equation, the Mozart concerti are among my favorite pieces in the repertoire, if not my favorite. As a body of work, along with the Beethoven Sonatas, they are the Holy Grail.

What is it that makes the Mozart concerti so special?

There is something about the medium that allowed Mozart to combine the most remarkable elements of his music. Very often when the piano is in conversation with the winds, you feel that these are characters out of an opera conversing with one another, which is obviously one of the great qualities in Mozart's music. On top of that, the piano was essentially his instrument (even though he played many instruments), so there is something about the writing that is incredibly idiomatic, even though it is far from easy. He has an ability to make the piano sing, to make it expressive of any character imaginable in such an organic way.

What drew you specifically to Orpheus for this project?

Going back to that first quality of play between the instruments, there is a sense of chamber music that makes the concerti so gratifying to perform. The aspect of Orpheus that makes the ensemble unique: in addition to the fact that everyone plays really well: is its way of working, with an unbelievably democratic approach to the rehearsal process. That feels especially appropriate for Mozart. When the music is so much about conversation between instruments, it seems right that the way you reach the decisions is to have a conversation between the people playing. I have had some great experiences playing Mozart with conductors, but it always has felt a little bit odd to me that I go on stage and have a give and take with the oboe, or a give and take with the bassoon, and I never actually have had any human contact with these people. In Orpheus, there was so much discussion, and so much enthusiasm for making the music as good as possible, and that was really infectious. As much as I have enjoyed all kinds of repertoire on Orpheus concerts, Mozart seems built for them.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of recording in a live concert, as you did in this case?

Whenever I have made a recording, I have always said to myself that, if nothing else, I would like the finished product to have the spirit of a performance: the feeling that it is being created in the moment. That is very difficult to do in a record, and so it was an amazing opportunity to go straight to the source, to play the concert and hope that that energy came out. The only disadvantage is that it is dangerous. We did record a rehearsal besides the concert, but that is still a tiny fraction of the material to put together compared to what you would have in a normal studio recording spread out over several sessions.

Ultimately, were you pleased with the recording process?

It worked in the best possible way. It was probably my most amazing experience in a concert ever, removed from the aspect of it being a recording. I felt that there was such good will on stage. I am sure that there are some things in the final recording that come from the rehearsal, but I really thought everyone did their best playing in the concert. Everything came together so beautifully.

What impact does an audience have on your playing, whether in a recording or concert?

I think of a performance as being a three-way conversation between the composer, the performers, and the audience. I don't think one is more important than the others. The energy of an audience is something that any performer is aware of and reacts to, even if it is in a completely subconscious way. I find that the best concerts are the ones where you can feel the tension of the audience listening. You can feel people lean forward and hold their breath as they listen, and it really does make you play differently. One of the things that is really interesting about going on tour is seeing the way that different audiences and also the different halls influence the way we play. I can't tell you exactly how, but these concerti will sound different in New York and Vienna and Berlin and Italy and Slovenia.

Besides adjusting to a new audience and new hall every night, you have to reckon with a different instrument. Does that also effect how you play?

It does because it has to; this is just a reality of being a pianist. I would not want to live without the differences between audiences, or (assuming that there is a minimum standard) the differences between halls. But sometimes the differences between pianos can be quite overwhelming. I just did a chamber music tour, and it was a similar situation in that we played the same program many nights in a row. I would play one day on a piano that was very heavy and then the next day on a piano that was extremely light, and it felt like I was playing different pieces.

On a light piano, it is a real struggle to create a sound that still has depth behind it, and with a heavy piano, nothing ever is fleet, so that can be very frustrating. But I am getting more and more to the point where I find that I can deal with different kinds of sound if there is a certain level of mechanical evenness and regularity throughout the piano. Sometimes, I even feel that it can be stimulating. Of course I react to the sound an instrument makes, but I also have an ideal in my head, and trying to come as close as possible to finding that ideal, no matter what is in front of me, can be an interesting challenge. Or maybe I am just telling myself that because otherwise I would bang my head against a wall all my life!

What do you do about the fact that any piano you play on is very different from what Mozart knew the instrument to be?

The job of a performer when playing, say, a Mozart Concerto, is to reproduce the affects of the music as faithfully and as vividly as possible, to an audience that lives in a very different universe and is hearing the music in a very different kind of space than Mozart would have played it in. It is about respecting both of those conditions, the condition in which the music was written, and the condition in which you have no choice but to perform it. It is a very delicate balance, and it requires as complete an understanding as possible of Mozart, and the world he lived in, and the expectations of his audience, and what else they were listening to, and of what his instrument sounded like, and what kind of sounds were in his ears. I have worked on instruments of Mozart's time, and I learned a huge amount from knowing what he could have expected out of his instruments.

One of the stops on your tour is Vienna. Do you find any particular connection to Mozart by walking the same streets he did?

In short, no. Of course there is something very moving about walking in the street, and, in the case of Vienna, knowing that Mozart walked there, and Schubert and Brahms and Haydn, and on and on. But I feel very strongly that music transcends place. A second rate composer can be a product of his or her surroundings, but a really great one is a citizen of the world. Johann Strauss is a Viennese composer, Mozart is the world's. So while I am delighted to go to Vienna, and the Musikverein is among the most beautiful places in the world to play, I do not think that I will feel more deeply about playing Mozart there then I will have the night before, wherever I happened to be.

Pieces by Mozart and Haydn have shared countless programs, including this one. What are the similarities and differences between these two masters that make their pairing so compelling?

I think the divergence is more interesting than what they had in common. They are, at their heart, incredibly different composers. There is an ease and comfort with the world that I sense in Haydn's music, which is not something I associate with Mozart's music at all. Haydn's is the music of someone who must have taken a great amount of pleasure in life. When he writes music that is shocking, it is always in fun. Whereas with Mozart, everything is felt so completely that it is sometimes on the borderline of being unbearable. It is a clichê©, but someone said, _ã–Life is a comedy for those who think, and a tragedy for those who feel._㝠I think life was a comedy for Haydn and a tragedy for Mozart. Haydn is certainly not lacking in depth at all, and Mozart is not lacking in wit, but there is something a little bit healthier about Haydn, while Mozart cuts a little deeper.

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, with Jonathan Biss, Performance Schedule

2008 U.S. Dates
December 5th: COLGATE UNIVERSITY, Hamilton, NY
December 6th: CARNEGIE HALL, New York, NY

2009 European Dates
February 8th: Perugia, Italy
February 9th: TEATRO ALIGHIERI, Ravenna, Italy
February 10th: TEATRO COMUNALE, Treviso, Italy
February 11th: KONZERTHAUS, Berlin, Italy
February 12th: PHILHARMONIE, Cologne, Germany
February 14th: PHILHARMONIE, Luxemburg
February 15th: LANDESFUNKHAUS NIEDERSACHEN, Hannover, Germany
February 16th: MUSIKVEREIN, Vienna, Austria
February 17th: CANKARJEW DOM, Ljubljana, Slovenia


For further information, call the Orpheus office at (212)896-1700 or visit

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