For Jonathan Biss, Beethoven’s birthday means a sonata celebration at Fresno State
Beethoven is a big deal this classical music season. In 2020, the world celebrates the composer’s 250th birthday. (A tip for those seeking a lasting legacy: If you want your birthday celebrated in perpetuity, it pays to be a composer, a president, or Jesus.) Orchestras around the world are planning all-Beethoven programs (including the Fresno Philharmonic, on Jan. 19). Solo artists are, too, including Jonathan Biss, who performs 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 11, at Fresno State as part of the Philip Lorenz International Keyboard Concerts series.
Pictured above: Jonathan Biss performs Friday at Fresno State.
But Biss, a celebrated American pianist who has performed with many of the world’s leading orchestras, isn’t just hopping on the birthday bandwagon. Beethoven has always been a big, big deal for him. Nine years ago, he decided to record all the Beethoven sonatas — one album a year. He took his time. He knows his stuff.
There are many reasons why the composer’s music is so important, Biss tells me in a phone interview earlier this week.
“He has a titanic personality,” he says. “It’s not simply the quality of his music, or the ground that he broke, or the quality of expression. He has this kind of artistic voice that’s really overwhelming. It really forces you to listen. He’s not ignorable.”
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Biss has been busy this year performing Beethoven’s sonatas. In some cities, such as London and Berkeley, he has performed all 32 of them over a period of seven concerts — a total of about 10 hours of music.
In Fresno, he will perform the Sonata in E Minor, Sonata in A Major and Sonata in B-flat Major.
“It’s an incredible program in Fresno,” he says. “It’s three of the late works, which are spiritual and a little bit unhinged, honestly. They have slow movements that can sound otherworldly and fugues that have a wildness to them. Even though they were written a couple of hundreds of years ago, they sound very modern.”
The late piano sonatas came before the late string quartets, which are famed for their edgy nature and forward-thinking musical language. (Many people who heard the string quartets at the time thought Beethoven had gone completely batty.) So, in that sense, the sonatas are not quite as “out there” as Beethoven’s final works, Biss says, but they still have plenty of that creative incandescence.
In his last years, Beethoven was very isolated. Virtually deaf, he endured a lot of family strife and was estranged from many of those close to him. All he had was music. That psychological state no doubt influenced what he wrote.
Does Biss try to get into that mindset when he sits down to play, almost like a Method actor?
“I wouldn’t say that I try to become Beethoven,” he says. “But I do feel the best concerts are the ones that I’m completely inside the music. There is some analogy to be made with acting. You embody something that’s connected to you but that’s different to you.”
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Biss certainly knows his sonatas — so much so that he is a star lecturer for the online learning platform Coursera. His free course “Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas,” a six-part survey of the 32 landmark works, has attracted more than 150,000 students from nearly every country in the world since its launch in 2013, according to Biss’ website. The fifth part of the series debuted Sept. 30, and the final module will appear Jan. 6.
The concert tour, series of albums and online course all make up a sophisticated, synergetic marketing package for Biss and his love of Beethoven.
If you could travel back in time and explain to the composer what was ahead for his music, it probably would have been hard for him to comprehend anything beyond the live concerts. Online courses? Huh?
But something tells Biss that he’d be delighted at all the attention 250 years later.
“The world today is so utterly different than the one he lived in that he would begin to understand anything about this, but I do also think he was chasing immortality. I don’t think he was a modest person. I do think that being heard was important to him. I think the number of performances would please him.”
Jonathan Biss, Philip Lorenz International Keyboard Concerts, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 11, Fresno State Concert Hall. Tickets are $25, $18 seniors, $5 students.