Jonathan Biss | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Jonathan Biss


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These days precocious technicians are a dime a dozen in classical music, but it's still rare to find a practiced young player with instincts as sharp as his skills. Pianist Jonathan Biss is just such a rarity: though only 18 and still a student at the Curtis Institute, he's already a fixture on the recital circuit, and his talent and intelligence portend a long, distinguished career. He plays with justifiable confidence, pinning down arpeggios and glissandi with a knife thrower's casual accuracy, but he's no mere showman. Nor is he overly emotional; his greatest talent is for clarifying a piece's structural logic, as if solving a puzzle--something he learned from his mentor, Leon Fleisher, himself a rigorous and brilliant pianist until a psychosomatic illness paralyzed his right arm in 1964. Biss could easily take the fast track to stardom as an interpreter of the standard repertoire, but he's interested in more contemporary music: in 1996 he gave the U.S. premiere of a concerto by Erwin Schulhoff, a Czech pianist and composer who died in a Nazi concentration camp, and last December he and James Tocco saluted American John Corigliano by playing a pair of his lesser-known compositions for two pianos. This weekend, as part of Ravinia's "Rising Stars" series, Biss will join the yearlong celebration of composer Leon Kirchner's 80th birthday with a performance of one of his key works, Five Pieces for Piano (1987). A longtime Harvard professor, Kirchner studied with Schoenberg but stopped short of hard-core serialism; his music is pungent, aggressive, and boldly dramatic, like an abstract expressionist painting. The program will also feature Janacek's Sonata 1.X.1905--written for a Czech protester killed by a German soldier on October 1, 1905--and pieces by Beethoven, Brahms, and Chopin. Friday, 8 PM; Bennett-Gordon Hall, Ravinia Festival, Lake Cook and Green Bay Rds., Highland Park; 847-266-5100. TED SHEN

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by ICM Artists, Ltd.

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