Jonathan Biss, the young pianist who makes his Carnegie Hall recital debut on Friday and will repeat the program at the slightly more modest Shriver Hall on Sunday, could easily have become a violinist. But as he tells it on the bio page of his website, "the highlight of his career as a violinist took place when he was a fetus."
A few months before his birth in Indiana in 1980, Biss writes, "he performed, prenatally, the Mozart A major Violin Concerto at Carnegie Hall, with the Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of Lorin Maazel."
That's one way of introducing the fact that Biss' mother is the highly regarded violinist and teacher Miriam Fried — and also a good way of demonstrating that Biss is a witty, down-to-earth guy.
He grew up in an exceptionally musical family (Samuel Barber wrote his Cello Concerto for Biss' grandmother) and revealed a talent at the keyboard from an early age. After studies at Indiana University, Biss entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia to study with Leon Fleisher, who also is a longtime faculty member of the Peabody Institute.
"I took 90 percent of my lessons with Leon Fleisher at Peabody rather than at Curtis," Biss said. "I have very strong memories of walking down Charles Street from the train station to Peabody and sitting in the corridor waiting for him to arrive. Baltimore is never just another town for me. When I play in Baltimore, it has a special resonance."
Biss, who made his New York Philharmonic debut in 2001, has appeared with leading orchestras on three continents. Locally, his engagements have included a solo recital for the Shriver Hall Concert Series in 2002 and a couple of performances as concerto soloist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
The repertoire featured in his return to Shriver reflects the pianist's wide-ranging tastes. Two large-scale, drama-rich standards are included, Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata and Schumann's Fantasy in C major.
"I first heard the 'Appassionata' when I was 11 and it made a huge impression on me," said Biss, who learned the piece shortly afterward. "What drew me to it was the raw emotionalism. Almost no piece in the piano literature is so direct in its language."
Biss will also play a piano sonata by a 20th-century Czech composer he has championed for quite a while — Leos Janacek.
"He has not gotten his due, but I think it's moving in that direction," Biss said. "His musical language is one of the most powerful of the time. There are non sequiturs in the music, like bolts from the blue, but on a deeper level, they're all tied together. You have to find out how they are incorporated into the total fabric."
Biss recently took on another challenge, "Three Piano Pieces" written for him last year by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Bernard Rands.
"I've played it 10 times now," Biss said. "With any piece, it takes a number of performances to find the grammar, to develop a sixth sense of how it's put together. I feel [the Rands work] is really wonderful. And I can't get over the fact that it was written for me. I'm struck with the honor of being able to make it my own before it goes on to be performed by other pianists."
Biss will soon add teaching to his well-filled schedule; he was just appointed to the faculty of the Curtis Institute. Count on him to pass on some of what he learned from Fleisher.
"I think about him on some level every day," Biss said. "He's a person of incredible presence and intensity, with an absolute belief in the responsibility to do great music justice."
The tone Fleisher can produce at the piano also remains a fresh memory. "Being for four years up close to that sound was an overwhelming and very humbling experience," Biss said. "He makes you forget what a piano supposedly can't do. It's a sound we all spend our lives aspiring to."
If you go
Jonathan Biss gives a recital at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at Shriver Hall, 3400 N. Charles St. $19-$38. 410-516-7164 or go to shriverconcerts.org.