IN: Reviews

Paul Biss Fêted at 70


Paul Biss (Kamarisarja photo)
Paul Biss (Kamarisarja photo)

Is there a better way to celebrate a big birthday than to throw a concert with friends and family? This is exactly what N.E.C. violist/violinist/conductor Paul Biss did for his 70th birthday this past Sunday at Jordan Hall; the many who attended had as good as time as the players themselves.

Unlike most birthday celebrants, Biss has a mightily impressive family and friends to help out. The first half of his program was devoted to music for violin and piano, with his renowned pianist son, Jonathan Biss, now on the faculty of Curtis and enjoying a major career. They began with a piece very dear to my heart, Mozart’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in C Major K. 296. (For many years my husband and I performed this on viola and harp. It worked perfectly). Jonathan Biss has an excellent reputation as a Beethoven player—he is recording all the Beethoven Sonatas over a period of 9 years—and his playing of the piano (harp!) part was sublime. Mozart considered this to be a piano sonata with the accompaniment of violin, so the main focus for the listener is the keyboard. Father and son played beautifully both here and in the not-often-played Antonin Dvorak’s Sonatina for Violin and Piano in G Major, op. 100/B. If you like/love Dvorak, this is a piece worth discovering. Very Czech sounding, with a bittersweet Larghetto and a beautiful Allegro, the Sonatina was a real gift to the audience.

What would a violin party without a few Fritz Kreisler arrangements? The first half ended with four of these: “Rondino on a Theme of Beethoven,” “Aucassin and Nicolette,” the gorgeous “Liebeslied,” and “Schön Rosmarin.” Paul Biss clearly loved playing these pieces, without music, and the two Bisses make really much of them. For a most welcome encore, they played the achingly seductive Melody from Orpheus and Eurydice by Gluck.

Long friendships, long, successful collaborations, and a long, happy marriage were behind the quintet who performed Mendelssohn’s Quintet for Strings No. 2 in B-flat Major, op. 87. The first violinst, Miriam Fried, needs little introduction. A brilliant concert violinist, she is married to Paul Biss. The second violinist, Tessa Lark, has won numerous major prizes for violin, including the Naumberg. She studied with Miriam Fried while at N.E.C. The violists were Paul Biss and Kim Kashkashian, who began Music for Food with Fried and Paul Biss on board as players from the very first season. Fried and Kashkashian will be playing the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante with Ben Zander conducting the end of October. Marcy Rosen, the cellist, was, for 30 years, in the Mendelssohn String Quartet with Miriam Fried. Marcy Rosen comes up frequently from New York to play for Music. She and Kashkashian are decades-long Marlboro colleagues. Jonathan Biss has spent many summers there. So playing together must have been a complete joy.

I was wondering if the Mendelssohn Quintet (1845) was in honor of the Mendelssohn String Quartet, and why the second quintet was chosen over the better first. The two Mendelssohn Quintets were the first important works of its kind since Mozart’s two Viola Quintets. Published posthumously as Op. 87,

The Quintet opens with a long Allegro vivace of great exuberance, reminiscent of his Octet. Miriam Fried was absolutely brilliant as the first violinist, as was her Mendelssohn Quartet friend, cellist Marcy Rosen (who, when 16, had me as her semester-long substitute English teacher at Curtis). The first movement’s brio contrasts starkly with the beautiful Adagio e lento, the quintet’s center of gravity, full of drama and pathos. Mendelssohn was unhappy with the last exuberant movement, and withheld the work from publication. But it was good to hear this rarely heard work with such distinguished performers.

Before announcing the 2nd encore of the evening, Paul Biss thanked the many people who had traveled from far and wide to be here: his Chicago son (a mathematician turned politician) and family, his brother, and finally the many students from his 40 years of teaching. For an extra present to his audience and fans, Biss and Company performed the slow movement of Mozart’s C Major Viola Quintet with its rapturous love duet, played to loving perfection by Biss and Fried.

Seventieth birthdays don’t get any better than this one. What good friends! What a great family! Happy birthday, Paul!

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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  1. Since all of the other Bisses have been recognized in some detail in this truly lovely article, I thought it worth adding a brief (admittedly, tangential) note about the final Biss. I had the great fortune of taking an introductory topology course from Daniel many years ago. He was a thoughtful and overwhelmingly kind professor who invited us to his home for a dinner at the end of the term. I noticed he had a beautiful piano, to which he mumbled something about belonging to a musical family “of sorts”. I didn’t recognize the score sitting on the piano, but after term ended he surprised me with a recording of it–the Brahms Handel variations recorded by Leon Fleisher. The semester had turned out to be a beautiful introduction to mathematics, to a wonderful piece of music, and to an incredible family. Of course I’m sad that no more undergrads will be able to attend those lectures or sit in his classroom, but am glad to know that someone of such intelligence and compassion is serving on the Illinois State Senate.

    Comment by Sudeep Agarwala — September 30, 2014 at 10:17 pm

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