Guest pianist will play Brahms, Bartók with RPO

05:00 AM, Oct 13, 2013

Jonathan Biss will play with the RPO on Saturday. (Jamie Jung/provided by the RPO / Photo provided by)/

Written By Daniel J. Kushner

More concerts

The Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings, in its 30th year and known for its new interpretations of older works and introduction of new pieces, will open the Eastman School of Music’s Kilbourn Concert Series at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs St. Tickets are $15 to $25. Call (585) 454-2100 or go to
The week also includes a number of free concerts worth checking out. The Greece Symphony Orchestra plays at 3 p.m. today at Hope Lutheran Church, 1301 Vintage Lane, Greece, in a free concert. Call (585) 234-5636 or go to Morning Chamber Music is a program of music played by a group including pianist Elinor Freer and bassist James Vandemark that was previously recorded for an album of the same name. The concert is at 11 a.m. Saturday at Hatch Recital Hall, 433 E. Main St. Call (585) 274-1100 or go to
The Bach cantata series Contata! begins at 3 p.m. next Sunday at Lutheran Church of the Reformation, 111 N. Chestnut St. Call (585) 274-1100 or go to
More concerts at the colleges: New-music group Musica Nova at 8 p.m. Monday in Kilbourn Hall; Eastman Wind Ensemble at 8 p.m. Wednesday in Eastman Theatre; Strings Studio Recital at 12:10 p.m. Thursday at Nazareth College’s Wilmot Hall of Music; Chamber Jazz at 8 p.m. Thursday in Kilbourn Hall; and the Eastman Philharmonia and Eastman-Rochester Chorus at 8 p.m. Friday performing Mahler works.

If you go

What: RPO presents “Brahms & Bartók,” featuring pianist Jonathan Biss and guest conductor Bernhard Gueller.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St.
Cost: $15 to $89; $10 for students.
For tickets: (585) 454-2100 or

Typically, the concerto is a vehicle for showcasing the virtues of the featured solo instrument, replete with mesmerizing melodies and awe-inspiring deftness.

Led by guest conductor Bernhard Gueller, music director of Symphony Nova Scotia, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra will show audiences another side of the medium on Thursday and Saturday when it performs Johannes Brahms’ “Piano Concerto No. 1,” a work that accentuates the importance of the orchestra in providing musical substance and the rich harmonic context within which the pianist can relish the phrases he or she is called upon to interpret.

The soloist for this particular set of performances is pianist Jonathan Biss, who is no stranger to playing with the RPO, having collaborated with the orchestra twice, including 2007 performances of Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 24.”

Biss remembers the concerts fondly. “There was almost a chamber music quality to the music-making that there was such a natural feeling of give and take between me and the orchestra,” he says.

Brahms’ “Piano Concerto No. 1” stands in sharp contrast to the Mozart concerto.

The Brahms piece “wasn’t designed for virtuoso display at all. It was a piece that — before it ended up being a piano concerto — it was conceived as a symphony at one point. So I think that the sense of the material being extremely well-integrated is definitely part of the way I approach it,” says Biss. “There are moments where the piano really stands apart, you know, there’s the idea of the soloist as the conquering hero. But in general, it’s really much more of a ‘first among equals’ situation, and the piano should be woven into the texture much of the time in a rather seamless way.”

Among the works in the classical piano repertoire, the “Piano Concerto No. 1” holds a special distinction for Biss. “There are really few pieces that I play that make me feel more grateful to be a musician,” he says.

In addition to his concert appearances, Biss recently concluded teaching a free, five-week online course about Beethoven’s piano sonatas via the website Coursera. The program’s impact went beyond the more than 30,000 people who enrolled in the course to affect even the instructor’s attitude toward performance.

The experience has been so overwhelmingly positive, the interaction with the people taking the course has been really so inspiring to me, that it’s given me a greater sense of pleasure in the idea of playing for people,” says Biss. “I always loved performing, but maybe I think more of it being for the people who are listening in a way that I wasn’t as conscious of before.”

Along with contemporary composer Jennifer Higdon’s “City Scape: Skyline,” the two concerts will also feature Béla Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra.”