Jonathan Biss

Jonathan Biss
Kansas City Star

Pianist Jonathan Biss has been performing a series of concerts called “Schumann Under the Influence” in some of the world’s great music capitals, places like San Francisco, London, Hamburg, Amsterdam and, thanks to Cynthia Siebert and the Friends of Chamber Music, Kansas City.

He performed the first recital of the series in November, and March 8 he’ll return to the Folly Theater to play the second. He has programmed not only the music of Robert Schumann, but also works by Leoš Janáèek and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that Biss thinks shed light on the music of Schumann.

Biss will open his recital with the “Fantasiestücke” Op. 12 by Schumann.

“It simply means fantasy pieces,” Biss said. “So much of Schumann’s piano music uses the word fantasy in one way or another. Kreisleriana is subtitled ‘Fantasy for piano,’ and there’s his Fantasy in C, one of his great piano works.

“The idea of fantasy was very important to Schumann in general. I think he was not at his most comfortable in the traditional forms, like the sonata or symphony.

“He felt that freedom was the most important prerequisite for writing great music. So that’s the significance of the title. They are snapshots, eight character pieces which present an image or idea and are over almost as quickly as they begin.”

Biss will then play a fantastical work by the 20th century Czech composer Janáèek, in which Biss hears many echoes of Schumann.

“I remember distinctly the first time I heard ‘On an Overgrown Path,’ ” he said. “I was listening in a concert hall, and I didn’t have a program, and I remember thinking that the first two movements reminded me of the first two movements of the ‘Fantasiestücke.’

“I was shocked when I picked up the program to find the first movement was called ‘Our Evenings.’ The first movement of the Schumann is called ‘In the Evening.’ From that moment, I remember feeling absolutely convinced that there had to be some kind of correlation, and I decided that this is a connection worth investigating.

“I find that when you put the Schumann and the Janáèek back-to-back, there’s some sort of strange, spiritual, cross-century connection between the two.”

After opening the second half of the concert with two pieces by Mozart, which, according to Biss, have a dramatic quality similar to Schumann’s music, he’ll conclude with one of Schumann’s greatest piano masterpieces, “Davidsbündlertänze.”

“It means the dances of the League of David. The league was an imaginary group Schumann created, although it included many real people.

“It was a mix of alter egos like Florestan and Eusebius and the very real composers of his time whom he admired. The League of David was like a group of knights in Schumann’s mind. They were supposed to be the defenders of music, the great creators, the innovators who would move the art form forward into the future. I think it’s not a coincidence that this is perhaps his most daring work.”

Biss acknowledges that audiences are sometimes perplexed by Schumann’s music. He thinks the burden to communicate Schumann’s greatness rests completely with the performer.

“I think very often with Schumann, his pieces live or die based on the level of commitment and the love of the person playing them. But if you play his music with love and devotion and a spirit of generosity, then I find that audiences are very moved by it.”

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