Britt Orchestra: Beethoven & Jonathan Biss

Friday, August 3 • 7:30 p.m.

PROGRAM: Jonathan Biss, piano
NOTICE: Due to wildfire smoke, this Britt Orchestra concert has been moved to the North Medford High School auditorium. For more information, see the press announcement here. For arrival and parking directions check out this map of North Medford High
Also, due to the change of venue, the program for this concert has changed from the original program. Click here for full details on the program changes.

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major • Jonathan Biss, piano
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major

TICKETS: Premium Reserved $45 | Standard Reserved $25 | Lawn $20 | Child/Student Lawn $10 
DOORS OPEN: @ 6:30 General Public

Jonathan Biss
Program: Jonathan Biss, piano

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN - Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major • Jonathan Biss, piano

Allegro con brio
Rondo: Allegro scherzando

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH - Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major

Presto (attacca)
Largo (attacca)
Allegretto - Allegro

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, op. 15

Allegro con brio Largo
Allegro scherzando

Instrumentation: flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.

“In composition, you have all the time you want to decide what to say in 15 seconds; in improvisation, you have 15 seconds.”
-Steve Lacy, jazz saxophonist

Though we associate it with jazz and other “popular” genres, improvisation holds an important place in the pantheon of classical music. JS Bach would improvise entire church services on the organ; when he was ten, Mozart improvised part of a piece the composer André Grétry gave to him instead of sight reading it. But no classical composer was more well known for their improvising chops than Beethoven. 

Back in Beethoven’s heyday, as his legend as a composer began gaining momentum internationally, he was already well known as the most skilled improvisor in Vienna. Pianists would travel from all around to challenge Beethoven to “improvisation contests.” Popular amongst the aristocracy of Vienna, these contests would pit two pianists against each other to see who was the superior performer. The pianists would take turns playing improvisations, usually based on popular tunes, until a winner was declared by the audience on hand.

In 1800, piano virtuoso Daniel Steibelt made his way to Vienna following a successful recital tour in other German and Austrian cities. Once Steibelt arrived, many suggested he challenge Beethoven to an improvisation contest. As the story goes (this tale was relayed by Beethoven’s student Ferdinand Ries, who was not in attendance), Steibelt went first, tossing aside a piece of his own music from the piano, and improvising using the technique he was renowned for: the tremolo. The crowd applauded Steibelt’s playing furiously. As Beethoven rose to walk to the piano, he leaned down to pick up the music Steibelt had tossed aside. He showed this music to the audience, then flipped it upside down and placed it on the piano. He used the upside- down notes as the basis for his improvisation, and began imitating Steibelt’s performance in a sarcastic manner. When Steibelt realized he was not only defeated, but mocked and somewhat humiliated, he stormed out of the room, never to set foot in Vienna again.

I relay this story here not only because it is a fascinating tale of Beethoven’s amazing musical skill, but to show the importance of improvisation to the craft of musical composition. Many of Beethoven’s works likely started as simple improvisatory gestures, and the opening of Beethoven’s first piano concerto, which he would perform himself, almost certainly began its musical life as an improvisation. Cadenzas, which are almost exclusively performed according to a score today, would have been improvised by performers such as Beethoven. It wasn’t until later in his life, when his encroaching deafness prevented his ability to continue as a concert pianist, that Beethoven began writing out cadenzas for his concertos.

Heavily influenced by the music of Haydn and Mozart, this Beethoven concerto bears all the trappings of Classical period music: balanced phrasing, clear harmonic direction, adherence to standard forms, and plenty of flashy virtuosic passages. This work also owes much in the way of inspiration to Mozart’s first piano concerto, as Beethoven clearly had

Mozart’s work in mind when he embarked on his concerto. The two works share a key and much in the way of musical structure, which is not to say that Beethoven plagiarized Mozart (the Stravinsky adage applies here:“A good composer does not imitate; he steals.”). In fact, Beethoven seems to take a reverential approach to Mozart’s work, and begins laying the groundwork to move beyond Mozart’s genius, into new and uncharted musical territory.

— Notes: Mark Knippel

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Symphony No. 9 in E- at Major, op. 70

Allegretto - Allegro

Instrumentation: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.

“It is a merry little piece. Musicians will love to play it and critics will delight in blasting it.”
-Dmitri Shostakovich

To this day, the looming shadow of Beethoven’s symphonic output constantly towers over composers, especially when they embark on writing symphonies, and even more especially when they reach their ninth such work. Beethoven set the bar extremely high with his monumental Ninth Symphony, and composers since have been reluctant at best, and sometimes downright superstitious regarding their own ninths. When Shostakovich began work on his Ninth Symphony, expectations were extremely high. The Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II seemed

inevitable at the time, so everyone expected a grandiose work from Shostakovich, complete with a choral finale and bombastic reverence of the superiority of the Soviet state. Initially, Shostakovich agreed with this sentiment, announcing that his Ninth would include soloists and a chorus, and would be “...about the greatness of the Russian people, about our Red Army liberating our native land from the enemy.” He even gave a preview of the work to a handful of musicians and critics, who noted its heroic character. Whether Shostakovich grew tired of grand symphonies (his Seventh and Eighth were both large-scale works about the ongoing war effort), or he decided on a new direction out of spite to his Soviet overlords, this heroic work was abandoned for something very different: an almost neo-classical work, drawing inspiration from Haydn in particular, and taking a sarcastic, humorous character, seemingly thumbing his nose at the Soviet authorities

In his notes for the Young People’s Concerts (which can be found on the Library of Congress’s website), Leonard Bernstein characterized Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony as a series of musical “jokes,” beginning with the defied expectations of what a ninth symphony ought to look like. The next joke is the wrong note placed in the opening theme, which sounds like something lifted straight out of Haydn, until a seemingly out of place note interrupts the traditional nature of the theme. Shostakovich also adds and subtracts beats in various measures throughout the first movement, throwing a wrench in the phrase structure of what would otherwise be a very normative, neo-classical sounding work. A cute whistling tune, accompanied by an obnoxious trombone, highlight an apparent dichotomy Shostakovich brings to the fore in this movement; something between tradition and mockery, with a trademark wit and sarcasm that belies the traditional nature of the structure of the work.

The second movement furthers this notion of a dichotomy, with a haunting waltz tune introduced by the clarinet. What seems to start as a normal waltz is thrown off by two elements: two notes outside of the introduced key, and the addition of a single beat in the second measure. These two factors reappear throughout the movement, often right as the listener might begin swaying to the waltz tune. A rising theme in the strings begins a more normative waltz section, which leads back to the first theme in a new group of instruments.

The final three movements are played without pause. Clarinets again launch the third movement, a rip-roaring Scherzo (a joke in and of itself) with virtuosic lines traveling through the orchestra. Hold onto your seats! The fast lines quickly give way to a noble brass choir, heralding the beginning of the fourth movement. The brass alternates with a quirky bassoon solo played over droning strings. The bassoon grows more rhythmic, which signals the start of the final movement, an intriguing and playful Rondo that grows organically from the solemness of the preceding movement to the wittiness and sarcasm marked by the first movement. The finale builds up great deal of intensity and tension, culminating in the first Rondo theme stated by the brass over continuously intense string playing. And right when you think it’s over, Shostakovich ramps up the orchestra in tempo, with a trademark conclusion that will leave you wanting more!

— Notes: Mark Knippel

Guest Artist: Jonathan Biss, piano

Jonathan Biss

Jonathan Biss was born in 1980; his professional debut preceded this event by several months, when he performed, prenatally, the Mozart A Major Violin Concerto at Carnegie Hall, with the Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of Lorin Maazel.
Subsequent violin performances have shown greater independence, though they have also been more likely to send listeners running in the opposite direction, wildly searching for Ear, Nose and Throat specialists, and handguns.

Although the highlight of his career as a violinist took place when he was a fetus, Mr. Biss’ childhood was nonetheless saturated with music. With both of his parents playing the violin, and his older brother Daniel taking up the piano, he remembers music emanating from nearly every room in the house, including bathrooms, which, while modest in their decor, were valued for their acoustical properties.

Given this background, Mr. Biss’s commencement of piano studies at the age of six might seem like a defensive move, but it was in fact entirely offensive: while this adjective may in fact describe the sounds he produced when he began studying, it is simply meant to convey that the motivation to play the piano was entirely his own - his parents had no extra bathrooms to practice in, after all, and were not keen to build an outhouse. Mr. Biss’ enthusiasm manifested itself from the very beginning of his studies, far exceeding his six year-old physical and intellectual capacities3.

This enthusiasm (or, if you take the word of Mr. Biss’s friends and associates, “obsessiveness” and “neurosis”) remains today, as does the feeling that doing justice to great music is an ever unattainable goal. While this doesn’t necessarily make life easy, it is Mr. Biss’s deeply held sentiment that any other approach would be unthinkable. Or, in his own words, “if I ever stop finding music challenging and life-altering, I’ll quit and become an accountant.”5

Growing up in Bloomington, Indiana, Mr. Biss was blessed with excellent teachers, starting with Karen Taylor - who as his first instructor, helped him give what is still regarded as the definitive performance of the “Middle C Piece,” - and continuing with Evelyne Brancart, who for six years was an invaluable source of information while Mr. Biss weathered what might best be termed an awkward adolescence. At the age of 17, Mr. Biss went to the Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied with Leon Fleisher, which proved a phenomenal learning experience whenever Mr. Biss stopped looking under the piano to see if magic or pharmaceuticals were involved in the production of Mr. Fleisher’s surreally beautiful sound.

Around the same time, Mr. Biss began concertizing, which has led to his present activities, described in other pages of this site. Highlights have included post-natal reengagements with Ms. Fried (with Mr. Biss a less reticent partner this time around), Maestro Maazel, and in November 2007, the Cleveland Orchestra.

While Mr. Biss’s life in music provides him with tremendous satisfaction, playing music remains ever a struggle. He regards it as a pleasure and privilege to live this struggle, and to share its results with other people.

Visit these sites for more information on Jonathan Biss:


Pre-concert talk: Cancelled