Jonathan Biss had the run of the hallways when Tim Hankewich was a graduate student in conducting at Indiana University in the early 1990s. Biss’ parents, both violinists, were on the faculty at the Bloomington school where Hankewich earned his Ph.D.
Fast-forward a few decades, and Biss “is a real big deal in the piano world right now,” said Hankewich, who will conduct Biss in a trio of weekend performances featuring two major piano works.
“It’s great to have Jonathan here to champion one of his unique projects, pairing every Beethoven piano concerto with a sister work by a modern composer.”
Biss will be at the grand keyboard to launch Orchestra Iowa’s Masterworks series Friday (10/12) at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, Saturday (10/13) at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids and Sunday (10/14) at the Sondheim Center in Fairfield. He’ll perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and “City Stanza,” written by Sally Beamish as a response or reaction to the Beethoven work.
“This pairing turned out to be a catalyst for the entire season,” Hankewich said. “It’s the year of the woman. Every program features a composition by a leading female composer.”
Likewise, Biss is looking forward to having an accomplished pianist wield the baton, since Hankewich earned his bachelor of music degree with honors in piano performance at the University of Alberta in his native Canada.
“The way in which a person listens is connected to what instrument they play or have played,” Biss, 38, said by phone from London, where he was performing with the Elias String Quartet before heading to Wales for a solo concert.
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“Pianists definitely have a specific way of listening, which is rooted in the fact that we don’t just play single lines. We play the entire harmonic structure of the pieces in our hand. Sometimes it means pianists tend to be bigger picture-musicians,” Biss said. “Having someone who plays piano really well is a real advantage ultimately. It’s easier for them to zoom out when they’re looking at a piece of music.”
Beethoven also is the focus of a major artistic accomplishment for Biss, who is nearing the end of a nine-year project to record all of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas written for solo piano. He’s on track to finish by his target date of 2020, with seven CDs published and the eighth one recorded and due out this winter.
“The 32 Beethoven sonatas as a body of music are as great as any body of music ever written, and as full of variety of expression,” Biss said. “I know it might sound limiting in a sense to say I’m going to play all of those pieces to the exclusion of anything else, but there really is no corner of humanity that isn’t communicated in these pieces. He covers the gamut of emotion and does so with such conviction and intensity, that there’s really nothing else I could choose to play that would give me what those pieces give me.”
Ludwig van Beethoven, who was born in Germany in 1770 and died in Vienna in 1827, speaks to his soul.
“What it comes down to is his intensity,” Biss said. “There’s a sense of purpose and a need to express himself through music that is stronger than anyone else. As a listener or a player, you really feel that he grabs you by the collar, and that’s dangerous for me, but it’s also the most amazing thing to experience.”
Orchestra Iowa audiences will experience Beethoven in concerto form — a piece for piano and orchestra, in which the music becomes a dialogue and sometimes a confrontation, he said.
Piano Concerto No. 1 will give Biss a workout, with elements of Mozart (1756-1791) coloring the rapid-fire yet delicate first movement.
“If you look at (Beethoven’s) early pieces, Mozart’s sound-world was Beethoven’s starting point. He then moved far away from it, bit by bit. In this piece, even though it’s early, you hear his enormous personality asserting itself, but there’s no question that Mozart was — I don’t know if I would say the model for him — but he was certainly the measure. (Beethoven) was measuring what he was able to do against this incredibly high standard Mozart had set, particularly with the piano concerto. Mozart’s piano concerti are one of the very greatest bodies of music, and Beethoven would have been well aware of that.”
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As for the first piano concerto, Biss said: “What’s fascinating about it, is that at its core, it’s a classical work, but it’s also kind of bursting at the seams, because it’s actually pretty enormous in scope. In spite of being sparkling with a tremendous kind of verve, it has a slow movement in the middle of it all that has this spirituality that I think ultimately is Beethoven’s greatest quality.
“All of a sudden, it evokes such a utopian world. It’s really kind of amazing. He just has a way in these slow movements of stopping time, and nobody ever achieved quite the same thing before him and after him.
“The other thing I would point out to the listener who might be coming to the piece for the first time, is the cadenza of the first movement, which again, just is outsized. The piece seems to be of a certain set of proportions, then along comes this cadenza, and all that goes out the window. It’s outrageous in its length, it’s outrageous in its virtuosity, it’s outrageous in all of its crazy modulations that it goes through. That’s a big part of Beethoven’s personality. He liked being outrageous. He liked setting up an expectation and says, ‘Nope, not following through with that.’”
Sally Beamish, born in London and based in Glasgow, Scotland, complements the Beethoven work, but breaks into another direction with “City Stanzas,” which Biss premiered with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra on Jan. 20, 2017.
“There are very direct references to the Beethoven,” he said. “In the slow movement of Sally’s piece, there is a quotation from the (Beethoven) slow movement, and the whole of the last movement mimics the last movement of the Beethoven in structure. ...
“But whereas the Beethoven is incredibly good-natured and charming, Sally sort of turns that on its head. Her piece is meant to be a commentary on the more depraved and grotesque aspects of our society. So she’s taken something which in its initial form was very positive music, and she has brought out something very dark and even embittered in it. It’s kind of amazing, I have to say — a very powerful experience to play.”
WHAT: Orchestra Iowa: Piano Star Jonathan Biss Plays Beethoven
CORALVILLE: 7:30 p.m. Friday (10/12), Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, 1301 Fifth St.; $28, Paramount Ticket Office, 119 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids, (319) 366-8203 or Tickets.artsiowa.com/production/3034
CEDAR RAPIDS: 7:30 p.m. Saturday (10/13), Paramount Theatre, 123 Third St. SE; $16 to $55, Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Tickets.artsiowa.com/production/3034; students K to 12 free and college students $10 only at Paramount Ticket Office
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FAIRFIELD: 2:30 p.m. Sunday (10/14), Sondheim Center, 200 N. Main St.; $10 students (only at Sondheim Ticket Office), $18 ages 65 and older, $20 adults at Sondheim Ticket Office, (641) 472-2787 or Fairfieldacc.com
PROGRAM: Mozart, Symphony No. 35, “Haffner”; Beamish, “City Stanzas,” with Jonathan Biss, piano; Handel, “Music for the Royal Fireworks” Overture; Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 1, featuring Biss
ARTIST’S WEBSITE: Jonathanbiss.com