Jonathan Biss is looking forward to returning to Philadelphia, and a reunion with friends he made during his four years of undergraduate study here. Like many visitors to the region, he will stop at some of the city's best known cultural venues. Unlike most, though, his seat will be at center stage, as featured soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, from Jan. 11 to 13, performing Mozart's "Piano Concert No. 21" under the baton of visiting conductor James Conlon.
The concerts are set for Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center.
The 26-year-old virtuoso began his own Philadelphia story as a student at the Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied with the legendary Leon Fleischer. Biss had not yet graduated when he made his New York debut in a recital at the 92nd Street Y, followed by an appearance with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic.
Since then, he has toured the United States and Europe, appearing with the world's most prestigious orchestras, at international music festivals, and in recital. His first recording, in 2004, featuring works by Beethoven and Schumann, was called a "brilliant debut release." His second, an all-Schuman recital to be issued on the EMI label, is due next month.
Reached in Israel, where he was combining a family visit with appearances at the Tel Aviv Conservatory and the Jerusalem Music Center, Biss confided that, while he has played a wide range of repertoire, and has even commissioned some contemporary composers to write for him, he has a special affinity for works by Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann. "I want to come close to the heart of the music," he explained, "so I'm careful to play only music I really love."
Biss began to explore his love of music as a child of 6, inspired by his older brother, who had already begun to play the piano; but music was always a part of his life. Biss is the son and grandson of renowned performers: His grandmother, Raya Barbousova, is a cellist, for whom Samuel Barber composed his "Cello Concerto"; his mother, Miriam Fried, is a violinist, and father Paul Biss plays both violin and viola.
Though obviously following in their musical footsteps, the younger Biss commented that he had never been interested in continuing the family string tradition. When his brother stopped playing, Jonathan was left as the lone pianist in the house. The young musician enjoyed being able to play without enduring direct comparisons with his parents, and noted that the distribution of musical interests within the family has made it easy for them to play together.
Duets With Mom
Bliss proudly added that his recent concerts in Israel featured him in duets with his mother, with whom he has frequently performed.
Biss made his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra last summer during their residence at the Saratoga Music Festival, but the pianist revealed that he immediately felt at home with the orchestra because of the contacts he had made with several of its members during his student years in Philadelphia. He is eagerly anticipating this week's first appearance on the orchestra's subscription series, as well as a program of chamber music he will perform on Sunday afternoon with members of the orchestra.
That concert, part of the Kimmel Center's ongoing chamber music series, will feature Biss in performances of the Ravel "Piano Trio in A minor" and the Brahms "Piano Quintet in F minor" at the Perelman Theater.
Philadelphians who miss his local performances will have a chance to hear him next month, when he will play Mozart's "Piano Concert No. 24" at Carnegie Hall.
Judging from the reviews Biss has received thus far, it will be well worth the trip.
Dr. Marsha Bryan Edelman is a professor of music at Gratz College.