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The Carnegie Hall Debut: Jonathan Biss's In Utero Debut

In the third of a series of guest blog posts, pianist Jonathan Biss reveals that, while his solo recital debut in the "big hall" takes place on January 21, his debut on the great stage happened earlier. Much, much earlier.

Over the last few weeks, I've been asked the question "Why is playing a recital in Carnegie Hall special?" many times, by friends and by journalists, and each time my first instinct, so far successfully repressed, has been to respond (in the Jewish manner) with another question: "Isn't it obvious?"

But if lightning doesn't strike twice, it certainly doesn't strike more than twice, and so I am by now forced to acknowledge the possibility that it might not be obvious after all. And so, without falling back on the usual (accurate) platitudes about the hall's beauty, grandeur, and acoustics, I'm going to attempt to answer the question in as personal a manner as possible.

I've probably told this story one too many times, but if ever there were a moment for it, this is it: my Carnegie Hall debut, as it were, took place approximately five months before my birth, when my mother played there early in 1980. It was as Lorin Maazel's soloist in the A Major Mozart Violin Concerto, with the Cleveland Orchestra—distinguished circumstances for a debut. (26 years later, when I played the A Major Piano Concerto, K. 488, with Mr. Maazel, I asked him how it compared.)

My next appearance in the hall, approximately as noteworthy as my first, was when I was seven years my old, and my mother was giving a recital. My family lived in Indiana at the time, but we all flew in for the concert, and I walked on stage during the rehearsal—apparently at my own insistence. My memory of that day contains no specific recollections, but rather a hazy but definite feeling of awe. Both from the stage and, later in the day, from the audience, the place felt not only enormous, but somehow magical. I was seven, and from Indiana, and Manhattan seemed noisy and overwhelming, and that made the kind of serenity which existed inside all the more eerie and impressive.

Then I went back to Indiana. As I grew up, and a life in music seemed more and more to be an inevitability for me, Carnegie Hall came to represent something—not a holy grail, that's too, well, holy—but a kind of home for music, a place where its loftiness and its simplest beauties could co-exist, a place where, in spite of the size and the impressiveness of the structure and the people who played in it, music was to be loved rather than admired.

As anyone who has ever dreamed knows, this sort of internal building of distant monuments is a very easy way to be disappointed, and I remember distinctly that on my next visit to Carnegie, ten years later, I felt ready to have the bubble burst. But while the hall did seem a little less shockingly huge, it was in no meaningful way diminished. I remember that concert very well—it was Martha Argerich playing Prokofieff's 1st and 3rd concerti—and while she was, of course, amazing, when I stood outside the hall to buy scalped tickets for the next day's sold-out concert, it was as much out of a desire to go back in there as to hear her a second time.

The first time I played at Carnegie Hall was at the tail end of 1999, with the New York String Orchestra and Jaime Laredo. As the date approached, I was almost giddy with anticipation and, I'm sure it's no surprise to hear, nerves. How would I handle the sensation of being on that stage which I'd looked at from a distance so often but hadn't actually been on in 13 years? (And I didn't exactly play much on that occasion—one note, according to my parents' more reliable memories.)

But in the concert, something curious happened—a phenomenon I've experienced the many times I've been blessed to play there since—I felt almost serene, and as able to enjoy the beauty of the sound in the moment as I've ever been able to anywhere. No one who plays at Carnegie could fail to feel a sense of occasion, and yet being on that stage feels not just inspiring, but somehow comforting.

More than architecture or acoustics, I think a person's relationship with a hall is defined by the concerts he or she hears there, and it's probably significant that at Carnegie, I've heard not only many performers whom I know as legends, but numerous friends, colleagues, and probably most significantly of all, mentors. I've been in the hall for a handful of recitals each by Mitsuko Uchida and Richard Goode, both of whom I've grown to know well through many summers at Marlboro; when I think of Carnegie, a bit of Mitsuko's unflinching integrity and Richard's endless musical generosity are part of the thought. And I was in the hall when Leon Fleisher, my revered teacher, gave his first two-handed recital there in many decades; I was one of, I believe, over a hundred pianists sitting in the balconies in tears, not because his story is so moving, but because we had never heard Schubert played with so much wisdom or feeling between the notes - with so much rightness. His Schubert, and his sound—which both pierces the heart and shines like the sun (or moon, or stars, depending on the moment)—is part of my Carnegie Hall as well.

So that, more or less, is why playing a recital in Carnegie Hall is special. But writing this is an excellent reminder that, really, every visit to the hall is special. Not that I really needed a reminder. Just last week, I went to the hall to hear the New York String Orchestra with Jaime Laredo—the same institution (if not the same players) with whom I made my (credited) hall debut eleven years ago. I walked into the building, and immediately noticed that I was gazing, wide-eyed, at everything—much like a seven-year-old. I picked up my ticket, walked up the stairs, and took my seat. I then looked out onto the stage, at all of those musicians, most of them playing there for the first time, and wondered if they felt the same way about being there as I did eleven years ago, and still do. Jaime walked on stage, the concert began, and I tried to remember to breathe.

—Jonathan Biss

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