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Studious to match his mastery

July 15, 2007|David Mermelstein | Special to The Times

NOBODY ever got far in music on the strength of a parent's accomplishments, but a little help from a talented father or mother never hurt, either. By that measure, pianist Jonathan Biss was one lucky kid, for both his folks, violinists Miriam Fried and Paul Biss, who also plays the viola, are successful performers and teachers.

Biss, 26, is just now coming into his own as an artist with a public following, but he long ago began impressing critics and fellow musicians. The delay in mass recognition may be because his chief strength lies in engaging his audiences' hearts and minds, a far subtler feat than dazzling them with prodigious technique -- not that he comes up short in that regard.

On Thursday, Biss is scheduled to play Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. And the performance, to be conducted by Leonard Slatkin, will be a harbinger of his next season, when plans call for him to devote a large part of his concert schedule to Beethoven. Indeed, Biss' next booking with the Philharmonic, in early December at Walt Disney Concert Hall, has him performing Beethoven's Fourth Concerto -- his favorite of the composer's five excursions in this realm.

"With Beethoven, more than any other composer, it's good to work on a lot at the same time," he said recently by phone from his Manhattan apartment. "There's something about the way he deals in concepts. It's difficult but so rewarding. And the more you do, the more you feel at one with the language."

Though he is hardly antagonistic toward new music -- "I'm basically opposed to specialization," he said -- Biss has made his name performing canonical scores. His previous appearances with the Philharmonic featured him in concertos by Mendelssohn and Mozart. And a stop in Orange County in March, while he was touring with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, found him performing Schumann's Concerto.

On record too, he has stuck primarily to pillars of the repertory. His first album for EMI Classics consisted of works by Beethoven and Schumann, his second was all Schumann, and his third, arriving in October, is entirely Beethoven.

Thus it was somewhat surprising to find Biss on a recently released CD devoted to the music of Leon Kirchner, a living American composer and a student of Schoenberg. The album, from the small Albany label, features Biss performing "Interlude II," which Kirchner dedicated to him.

"I can't live with the idea that great music is a thing of the past," he said. "I refuse to believe it. And I don't segregate new from old. I think of it existing in a continuum."

But though he mentioned an affinity for Bartok -- calling the Hungarian composer's music "profoundly satisfying" -- Biss acknowledged that he has yet to encounter modern composers who evoke in him anything like the deep kinship he feels for Beethoven and Mozart. "New music is always a bit of a gamble," he said. "It's a lot of work, and you never know how it will turn out."

No worries, say Biss' champions, old music serves him, and them, just fine. James Conlon, a globetrotting conductor when not in the pit as music director of Los Angeles Opera, has worked frequently with Biss, including last Sunday, when they performed three Mozart concertos with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival, where Conlon is also music director.

"Most of my professional life," Conlon said, "I've felt a strong contrast between the many who can play big Romantic, post-Romantic and even contemporary music but don't have what it takes to play Classical repertory. Jonathan has the sound and the sense of proportion. Someone who can play Mozart and Beethoven this well is worth his weight in gold.

"He thinks about what he's doing. In other words, he's got an intellect that's pretty impressive. There are some pianists who overthink but don't feel, some who feel but don't think enough, and then there are those who feel and think. And Jonathan is one of them."

Conlon mentioned the oft-repeated contrast between a "pianist" and a "musician" -- the former is supposedly more facile at the keyboard, in both the positive and negative senses. Biss made a similar observation when asked about his evolution from student to performer.

"It's been a gradual realization," he said. "I don't think there was a 'eureka' moment. Yet I'd say I was a musician rather than a concert pianist. It may seem a subtle distinction, but you're only a concert pianist while you're onstage. You're a musician 24 hours a day."

Such nuanced thinking about the performer's art probably has its roots in Biss' upbringing. Born in Bloomington, Ind., where his parents have both taught at Indiana University's school of music, Biss first studied locally. His mother discouraged learning any instrument too early, but by 6, young Jonathan, inspired by his older brother, Daniel, had pressed his parents to begin piano lessons.

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