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Interview with Jonathan Biss

Jonathan Biss is a world-renowned pianist who extends his deep musical and intellectual curiosity from the keyboard to classical music lovers in the concert hall and beyond. In addition to his performance schedule, the 34-year old American has spent eight summers at the Marlboro Music Festival, and has written extensively for prestigious media outlets about his own relationships with the composers with whom he shares a stage. A member of the faculty of his alma mater, the Curtis Institute of Music, since 2010, Jonathan led the school’s first massive open online course (MOOC) to a virtual classroom of 51,000 students last season.

Jonathan has been recognized with numerous honors, including the Leonard Bernstein Award presented at the 2005 Schleswig-Holstein Festival, Wolf Trap’s Shouse Debut Artist Award, the Andrew Wolf Memorial Chamber Music Award, Lincoln Center’s Martin E. Segal Award, an Avery Fisher Career Grant, the 2003 Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award, and the 2002 Gilmore Young Artist Award. He was an artist-in-residence on American Public Media’s Performance Today and was the first American chosen to participate in the BBC’s New Generation Artist program. For more information about Jonathan, please visit his website.

What was the first piece by Schoenberg that you’d ever heard?

I think it was Pierrot lunaire (Op. 21), because I remember hearing it when I was still a kid, living in Bloomington. Or, it could’ve been Erwartung (Op. 17), because I remember the ‘Live from Lincoln Center’ broadcast of a Met production with Jessye Norman singing it and James Levine conducting. I don’t remember which one came first. In a way, they’re at opposite ends of the spectrum, because Pierrot is a series of tiny, concentrated miniatures, while Erwartung is a 30-minute long, uninterrupted stream of consciousness. Whichever one it was that came first, though, I’ve always loved his music. I’m one of those people who first thought, “What the hell is that?” and then eventually came to love it. I probably didn’t understand much of it, but I was drawn to it from the beginning.

For you, what’s the difference between listening to Schoenberg’s music and playing it?

Probably the most striking characteristic of Schoenberg’s music is its unbelievable intensity, its constant intensity. As an audience member, though, you don’t always feel that. I don’t know if that’s because the performances aren’t always so great. However, I find the experience of working on his music—or playing it—incredibly intense. You feel like there’s no moment of emotional relaxation anywhere in the music and I’m not sure I could explain why. Maybe it has to do with the fact that he rejected this culture of certain intervals—or chords, even—implying a point of rest. Nothing’s a point of rest, basically, in Schoenberg’s music. That’s the predominant thing I notice when I play it, but I don’t always do so when I hear it at performances. Although, in the good ones, I think I still do. I will say, though, that it’s music that requires a real degree of familiarity to appreciate it, even piece by piece. So, there can be a level of alienation in hearing the music, if it’s a piece that you don’t know. Certainly, I find that the first time you listen to something like the Third String Quartet (Op. 30), you can feel as if you have no emotional connection to the music at all—whereas, when you’re playing it, there’s this feeling of it being super-emotional all the time. I guess it’s more difficult to feel viscerally connected to the music as an audience member than it is as a player. It’s unlike Brahms’ music, where you can feel just as enveloped by it as the player is, even when you’re sitting in the back row of the concert hall.

Adorno said something to the effect that, a hundred years after Schoenberg’s time, we’ll listen to his music like we listen to Beethoven’s but, of course, that’s not true. Do think there’s any way of making it easier for today’s audience to listen to Schoenberg’s music?

I certainly think that the pieces in miniature provide a very good introduction into his language. In addition to Pierrot lunaire, pieces like the Sechs kleine Klavierstücke (Op. 19), which are really kleine—I mean, they’re 1-minute long each—are a very good way in, because they’re uncompromising in terms of their language. They’re also so fleeting, mercurial, that they exemplify something that people find so difficult about his music—the apparent lack of resolution, how it just goes on and on. So, it might help to bring people in by introducing them to these microcosmsfirst. As I said, Erwartung was the piece I loved from the beginning, but that would be a more dangerous first exposure to Schoenberg’s music. Beyond that, I think if you can pair it with music which demonstrates that, even though it is radical, it’s still a natural continuation of a tradition, that might help too. If you listen to Schoenberg’s music only in the context of other atonal music, then only that side of it will be emphasised. But if you listen to it after, for example, late Brahms or Wolf or even late Schumann, you ears are already used to the idea of the ‘rubber-band’ of tonality being stretched and Schoenberg’s music—depending on whether it’s an early piece or a later piece—represents a stretching of that rubber-band just a little bit further or the breaking of it. Even in the purely atonal pieces, there’s so much meaning in-between every two notes, so much yearning in every large interval, that I find it has so much in common with late German romanticism. You can find romantic gestures all over the place. In fact, what I find difficult is that sometimes there’s no relief from it, from all these hyper-romantic gestures that are made all the time. So, if you can suggest to the audience, without telling them directly but just through programming, that this is where it comes from, I think people might be slightly more open to it. If you’re surround by people like Babbit and Cage and Henze and Rihm, then you’re already going to be listening for the things that people don’t like.

What do you think Schoenberg was like as a person?

I think that he was unbearable, from what I can tell. Incredibly gifted, no doubt, and incredibly bright. But he wasn’t generous. He wasn’t generous to his colleagues. He was polemical, you know, for fun. He wasn’t really interested in dialogue or discourse, other than as a means to demonstrate his intellectual superiority. Everything that I’ve learned about him has disappointed me. He’s one of those characters. I love a lot of his music, but when I listen to Berg, I feel that he’s probably a deeper person. Maybe Schoenberg was the greater genius, in terms of his capacity to really invent something that was a continuation but definitely new at the same time. In the pieces of Schoenberg’s that use the twelve-tone system, though, he rarely transcends the system completely. Even in the pieces I love, like the Piano Concerto, there’s always one moment or another where you can hear the seams in the music. By contrast, it’s possible in Berg’s greatest music to forget that you’re listening to music that’s a product of the system. I reckon that may be connected to some of Schoenberg’s human limitations: his being rigid, uncompromising, difficult and—I suspect—ungenerous.

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