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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Jewish “Beethoven specialist” coming to St. Louis for special show

Photo by Benjamin Ealovega
Jonathan Biss

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra will mark the second weekend of its 2023 season (Sept. 29-30) with concerts honoring composer Ludwig van Beethoven. The concerts will feature world-renowned pianist Jonathan Biss.

You might not expect that a pianist considered by many to be a “Beethoven Specialist” grew up as a Midwestern Jewish kid, but that is exactly who Biss is and his love for music could probably be connected to his Jewish faith.

Biss, who grew up within a small Jewish community in Bloomington, Ind., began playing the piano at 6 years old after being born to musically gifted parents. His parents, Miriam Fried and Paul Biss, were both violinists. His mother’s parents survived the Holocaust.

“Both my family and I are completely secular, and yet my Judaism is an essential part of me. It’s too deep to explain; it’s in my pores. I feel that my perspective on the world — my instinctive reactions to the things I see and hear — is somehow connected to my Jewishness,” said Biss.

But, Beethoven and Bloomington? It begs the question: whose music did he encounter first, Beethoven or John Mellencamp?

“Beethoven and it’s not even close,” said Biss. “Growing up in a family of musicians, I don’t even remember learning about Beethoven; he was simply a part of our lives. To this day I have only a vague notion of who Mellencamp is — something about Indiana and the word Cougar and unfortunate hair.”

Playing St. Louis

Biss returns to collaborate with the SLSO for the first time in 15 years.

“I’ll be playing Beethoven’s 1st piano concerto – the symphony is going to be playing the complete cycle of Beethoven’s five piano concerti over the course of this concert season, and I’m delighted to be opening it,” said Biss.

This is one of Beethoven’s early works, but Biss says it is no way an immature piece.

“The full personality and the full mastery of Beethoven are on display throughout. It crackles with energy and is full of wit and play – a few moments are really uproariously funny – but in its middle movement, it grows spiritual,” said Biss. “Beethoven’s music asks the biggest questions about life and death. They don’t necessarily have answers, but the questions themselves are so enriching.”

Biss and Beethoven, a story worth hearing

One of today’s foremost Beethoven experts, Biss recorded an audiobook, “Unquiet: My Life with Beethoven,” in 2020, where he details his complex relationship with the composer.

“‘Unquiet’ is an extended essay I wrote for Audible at the end of the year 2020, which was the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth,” Biss. “For the anniversary I was supposed to celebrate by playing his complete piano sonatas, but then COVID hit.”

Biss says he wrote “Unquiet” for another reason as well, to address his decades-long struggle with anxiety.

“The combination of those things gave me a real opportunity to think about the connection between my Beethoven obsession and my mental health. Beethoven’s music is like an irresistible object – the sheer force of his personality makes him impossible to look away from. It has been one of the greatest gifts to my life, but until I seriously dealt with my anxiety, it was also more than I could handle. It was very important for me to put my thoughts onto paper, and I hope it’s also been useful for others to read them.”

Beethhoven’s Piano Cycle: Jonathan Biss

When: Friday, Sept.  29 at 10:30 a.m. and Saturday, Sept. 30 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of Missouri St. Louis
How Much: Tickets range from $15 to $137.50
More info: For more information or to purchase tickets, click here.


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About the Contributor
Jordan Palmer
Jordan Palmer, Chief Digital Content Officer
Jordan worked at KSDK from 1995 to 2020. Jordan is a three-time Emmy award winner who produced every kind of show from news to specials during his tenure, creating Show Me St. Louis, The Cardinal Nation Show. He started ksdk.com in 2001 and won three Edward R. Murrow Awards for journalistic and website excellence in 2010, 2014 and 2020. Jordan has been married for 25 years and is the father of two college students. He is an avid biker, snowboarder, and beer lover. He created the blog drink314.com, focusing on the St. Louis beer community in 2015. Jordan has an incredible and vast knowledge of useless information and is the grandson of a Cleveland bootlegger.