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Jonathan Biss

The Arts

A guiding hand

New co-artistic director Jonathan Biss talks about the work that goes into making the famed Marlboro Music Festival run smoothly

For more information about Marlboro Music, go to the festival’s website at www.marlboromusic.org. For more about Jonathan Biss, visit jonathanbiss.com.

MARLBORO—Beginning this season, Jonathan Biss joins Mitsuko Uchida as co-artistic director of Marlboro Music.

Biss says it feels “wonderful” to pick up the reins at Marlboro.

“This is a very special place which, unlike the rest of the world these days, takes things slowly and gradually,” says Biss. “Marlboro is an ideal environment for musicians to learn as much as they can about music. The life of a musician may be terrific, but it can also be frantic, as he or she goes from place to place, performance to performance.

“You always feel you never have enough time to rehearse or even to learn a piece of music in as much depth as it should require. Marlboro is the opposite of all that.”

Only a handful of artists have served in a leadership role in Marlboro’s almost 70 year history. Marlboro Music’s founder, Rudolf Serkin, was artistic director for the first four decades until his death in 1991. For several years, Marlboro was led by a “Committee for Artistic Direction” consisting of Richard Goode, András Schiff, and Mitsuko Uchida. In 2000, Goode and Uchida began a 14-year tenure as co-directors and, in 2014, Uchida became just the second person to hold the sole position of artistic director.

Jonathan Biss joins this illustrious group of musicians, incidentally all pianists.

’A great joy’

Uchida writes at the Marlboro Music webpage: “I first came to Marlboro in 1974 as a young participant, then as a senior player and as director for the last 26 years. During these years I have learned from so many people young and old on a musical and a human level, while exploring music together.

“It is a great joy to me that Jonathan, who also embodies the spirit of Marlboro, is joining me as co-director. We will plot the future together. If music be the food of love, play on!”

Biss’ first year at Marlboro Music came in 1997, at the start of his career. He returned in 2006 in the role of senior artist.

“Marlboro has been my true musical home for many years now: the place where I feel the most purely connected to music, and where the intensity and sheer joy of making music are most palpable to me,” writes Biss on the Marlboro website. “To a great extent, I am the musician I am today because of what I learned here, first from many of the senior musicians, and more recently, from musicians my age and a generation younger than I am. To be joining Mitsuko, who has been an inspiration to me for so many years, in this leadership role, is humbling and thrilling in equal measure.”

Son of violinists Miriam Fried and Paul Biss, who were themselves resident artists at Marlboro in the 1970s, Jonathan Biss studied at Indiana University with Evelyne Brancart and at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia with Leon Fleisher.

Already one of the most celebrated pianists of his generation, Biss has received many awards, including Lincoln Center’s Martin E. Segal Award, an Avery Fisher Career Grant, and a Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award. Biss is currently a faculty member at Curtis.

A pianist first

Biss has had a varied career performing, recording, writing, teaching, and curating innovative projects that blend music and scholarship at the highest level. These include Schumann: Under the Influence, a 30-concert exploration of the composer’s role in music history; a project examining “late style” works and developments by major composers; the bestselling e-book Beethoven’s Shadow, the first Kindle Single by a classical musician; and Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, the first open online classical music course, which has reached over 150,000 people in 185 countries.

Nonetheless, Biss considers himself first and foremost a pianist.

“Everything else flows from that central fact of myself as a musician,” he says. “Marlboro has played a big part in that. Whenever I come back to Marlboro, it’s as if I had never left. The place feels like home to me.”

Consequently, when he was offered the post of co-artistic director of Marlboro Music, Biss accepted without hesitation. “No matter how daunting the job may be, I cannot imagine another responsibility I’d rather have,” he says.

Much of Biss’ work as co-artistic director takes place not in the summer when the festival is in session, but earlier in the season. “It’s then that we decide on the personnel, our repertoire for the season, the composer-in-residence and other things instrumental to the shape and character of the summer session,” he says.

This year the eminent pianist and conductor Leon Fleisher will be in residence as a guest artist, and the vocal program will be led by returning artists Lydia Brown, Malcolm Martineau, Ken Noda, and Benita Valente.

Two senior participants will return to Marlboro after long absences. Violinist Daniel Phillips, of the Orion Quartet, was last in residence as a young participant back in 1977, and clarinetist Alex Fiterstein returns after seven years. Clarinetist, composer, and conductor Jörg Widmann also returns as composer-in residence after a previous residency in 2008.

“We are particularly grateful to have Widmann return to us,” says Biss. “He is one of the most original voices in contemporary music. He is also a fantastic clarinet player. While the music he writes runs the gamut from chamber to orchestra — he has even written a sonata for Mitsuko — several of his works that we will be exploring with him this year include the clarinet. So we will have his expertise as both the writer of the music and a player.

“Having Jörg here (or any composer for that matter) actually is a great opportunity to work with the writer of the music. Most music we play and study has been written by composers no longer with us, and consequently we often struggle to understand what he or she wanted.

“Frankly, playing music often requires guess work. We have to become detectives to get close to the composer’s intentions. But with our composer in residence, he is right here in the room with us, and all we have to do is ask him.”

Part of the process

Biss explains how the repertoire each season is decided.

“Before summer, all the artists make a list of the work they wish to study, and we make a concerted effort to fit in as much as we can in our schedule of works that will be explored here,” he says. “But there are factors to be considered, such as if we have the right musicians to play a particular piece or if it is a piece appropriate for Marlboro.”

Although not always the case, Marlboro Music performs works written in the late 18th, the 19th and 20th centuries.

“I hardly consider this limiting since so much great music was written in that time,” Biss says. “In addition, we do some contemporary pieces of music here, such as the ones written by our composer in residence. At times we reach back earlier and play baroque and earlier music.

“We love Bach, and if we don’t play his music as we would like, the problem is that we simply don’t have the instruments to do justice to the earlier works. Besides that, it would take a lifetime to begin to fathom the works on which we do focus at Marlboro.”

Once the summer session begins, Biss acknowledges that a major job for the artistic directors is to make sure things go as smoothly as possible for everyone at the festival.

“Of course, trouble always surfaces when groups of strong-minded people get together,” he says. “Mitsuko and I are the first port of call when that happens. We consider it imperative that we set the values and atmosphere of Marlboro.

“Our central message is to take one’s time. There may be the fastest route to learning and understanding a piece of music, but it’s only one, and for full creativity, it is important to be able to explore others.”

Biss also contends his duty is to make everyone attending Marlboro “feel safe.”

“Musicians find themselves anxious all the time in the world outside this retreat, and it is important that they discover a place that is an alternative to that,” he says. He believes this is why so many musicians who have been through Marlboro treasure their experience.

But who are those musicians who come to Marlboro?

Frank Salomon, senior administrator for Marlboro Music, explains that the musicians can be divided into three categories.

“The first third are new artists,” Salomon says. “They have a three-year limit at the festival, which means some can return for a second year or even a third. The new artists audition for a slot in New York. Marlboro holds auditions when an opening becomes available, but there is not necessarily one in every category every year.”

The second third are those from the first who do return to Marlboro for a second or third year.

The final third are veteran senior artists.

“Ages for new players can range from 18 up to 30,” Salomon continues. “It varies. Pianists run from 18 until 26, while wind players can be up to 28, and singers, who develop later, up to 30.”

Musical mentors

Having been in all three groups at one time or another himself, Biss understands how the older musicians help mentor the younger artists. “We try to make it possible for the young musicians to have had the chance to work with all senior players during their stay at Marlboro,” he says. “By that exposure, they will be able to see there are many different approaches to music.”

After three weeks of daily rehearsals, Marlboro artists begin sharing the results of their in-depth collaborations with audiences.

Public concerts are presented on Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons from July 13 to Aug. 11, and on Friday evenings, July 26 and Aug. 9. The programs are selected from the 60-80 groups in rehearsal at any one time. As a retreat where the mission is to delve into music in great depth, less than 25 percent of the works rehearsed are presented in the weekend concerts.

“Unlike other music festivals, Marlboro has never made performance the central feature of the experience,” adds Biss. “Rather, it offers musicians the opportunity to work with other musicians in exploring in a depth unavailable elsewhere a work of music, which may or may not result in a public performance.

“If the musicians feel they have gone about as far as they can with a piece, they may indeed present a public performance of it, but this is not always the case.”

When asked if there was any reason all the artistic directors of Marlboro have been pianists, Biss first calls it a coincidence. But then he reconsiders.

“A pianist generally does not work in an ensemble like a chamber group or orchestra, but solo,” he says. “Consequently, he becomes fully responsible for what he plays. More than other musicians perhaps, he is forced to look at the big picture. All important skills in running as complex an enterprise as Marlboro Music.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #518 (Wednesday, July 10, 2019). This story appeared on page B1.

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