A couple of notable things about pianist Jonathan Biss, who returns to Seattle’s Benaroya Hall tonight (June 12) to perform with the Seattle Symphony: It’s the first time he will play Arnold Schoenberg’s 1942 Piano Concerto, and he is also somewhat of a rock star in the world of online teaching.
Biss, 33, has been teaching for three years at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, where he achieved an extraordinary accomplishment as an online instructor.
“Around the time I began teaching at Curtis, I also, coincidentally, began recording the complete Beethoven piano sonatas,” Biss says. “I was living with the sonatas 24-7, and I thought I would love some kind of educational component to the experience.”
Biss had heard about Coursera, a company that collaborates with schools to offer free online courses called Massive Online Open Courses, or MOOCs. (It offers classes from the University of Washington, Harvard, Stanford and many others.)
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He decided lecturing about Beethoven’s piano sonatas would be a chance to immerse even more deeply in them.
What happened next was completely unexpected: 51,000 people took the course.
“My expectations were blown out of the water,” Biss says. “I had no idea what people’s interest would be. It was flabbergasting. Next time I think no one is interested in classical music, I’ll remember this.”
The road to the Schoenberg piece has taken a little longer.
“I’ve been interested in the Schoenberg concerto for years,” Biss says. “Ludovic (Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot) and I have played together on a number of occasions, and we’ve always talked about doing it. When he came to Seattle, he said now we can find the perfect opportunity.”
Thursday’s program, which repeats June 14 and 15, also includes Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Emperor Waltzes” and Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D major.
Biss says the Schoenberg work is unlike anything else in piano-concerto literature.
“Schoenberg was a singular figure in 20th-century music, and I would say he is still very misunderstood. He’s one of the most intentionally provocative composers. He threw out the tonal system, which was used for hundreds of years, and was determined to reinvent the wheel. That’s what he did in the latter half of his life, during which he wrote this piano concerto.
“People think of his music as dry, but the concerto is deeply expressive and nostalgic. It lives at a high emotional temperature, with extremes of passion and moments of great delicacy. It’s beautiful in one way and prickly in another.”
A native of Bloomington, Ind., Biss was born into a family of musicians. His paternal grandmother was the well-known cellist Raya Garbousova (for whom Samuel Barber wrote his Cello Concerto), and his parents are violinists Paul Biss and Miriam Fried.
Back to the Beethoven: Does engaging his intellect so intensively about music get in the way of intuitive performances?
“I find the more layers you’re involved with a piece of music, the better. The more I think about the why of what I feel, the deeper it becomes. I don’t think feeling is compromised by knowing more.
“Meaningful relationships are made more meaningful by knowing more about the other person. I feel the same about music. A great piece can stand up to examination.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org