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Posted at 6:01 AM ET, 12/21/2010

Biss responds to YAP

By Anne Midgette, Jonathan Biss

Last week I posted about the generation of American pianists who came of age in the 1950s, and the difference between them and young American pianists today (who one can't even call a "generation" in the same sense). Two of the pianists I mentioned responded with their own thoughts: Jeffrey Biegel commented on the original post, and Jonathan Biss wrote the following response, which I post for him here:

"I was intrigued by your post about the “OYAPs” because I’ve often thought of what an impressive and unlikely thing it is that so many pianists who were both great and professionally successful came from the same place at roughly the same time. I think it’s particularly interesting as -- and someone please correct me if I’m wrong – those pianists are also the first generation of American pianists to achieve international renown. Where did they come from and how were there so many of them? Even just sociologically, it’s fascinating to me.

"I was also interested by the comparison you drew with my generation, and the use of the term 'DIY.' It got me thinking about what the substantive differences are (outside of the question of quality – it’s certainly not for me to say if we are OYAPs, or just YAPs rapidly turning into APs!). I think I’ve come to a similar conclusion, but see it more from the cause side than the effect side: the path towards a career used to be (for the lucky few) a fairly straight line – competition, debut, mushroom effect. That model doesn’t exist in the same way anymore, so everyone has to find his or her own path. In a sense it’s good, because it encourages pianists to be creative, and explore many more facets of their musical personalities – chamber music, new music, teaching, writing about music. (This is not to suggest, even for a moment, that the OYAPs were not creative or versatile – it’s just a commentary on what the outside expectations were.) But perhaps it also has made my generation seem more... diffuse, I guess?... as a group. (At least looking from the outside in; in reality, I have lots of close friendships with pianists of my generation.)

"But I don’t think the DIY thing is connected to nationality – musicians everywhere need to think in these terms now. It may be that the OYAP Generation captured the imagination of the American media and public because the idea at the time was that a Great Pianist was necessarily a person who came from Europe or the Soviet Union. (I wonder if the Chinese people have a somewhat analogous feeling towards their many astonishingly successful young pianists.)

"In the end, though, music’s greatest quality is its ability to speak to people beyond cultural or national borders. And so what was really significant about the OYAPs is not that they were all A, or even Y, but that they were so very O."

By Anne Midgette, Jonathan Biss  | December 21, 2010; 6:01 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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Jonathan, I enjoy your response to Anne's article so very much. To help answer your post, what made the American school of pianists so unique, is that they studied with legendary pedagogues who came to the US from Eastern Europe and trained these gifted American pianists. The Americans were taught in the old European and old Russian techniques--beautiful sound, rhythmic vitality, respect for the score, long singing phrases, intensity, color, warmth, pedaling for color--what more can I say. Don't be fooled--they were strict taskmasters. I, for one, studied with Adele Marcus, who was renowned for her temperament and amazing playing (you can hear mp3s of her early career at my web site She, along with many of her esteemed pianist colleagues, carried the traditions handed down to her from the great pianist, Josef Lhevinne, for one. This lineage was quite special, and I bring this style of sound and performance to my most advanced students. As you say, the career route was typically competitions--debuts--hopeful career. I was part of that route, but then I branched off when that became over populated and more difficult to do. I did win competitions and made my NY debut in Alice Tully Hall, to a rave review, and then secured management. It became increasingly difficult for managements because more and more contest winners were being represented, thus competing for the same engagements. Thus, I found other ways to cultivate my own career via unique repertoire in recordings, commissions of new concerti, composition and teaching. Every artist has to find their niche, so it has become a soul searching mission for new artists--a good thing for sure. In addition, network media has also helped connect us to many wonderful musicians and expand our horizons and performance opportunities this way. The pianists from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s--even through the 1990s, would never offer repertoire that many of us do today, because they would have seen it as 'dumbing down' from the great masters. Quite the contrary. There are numerous works for all instruments which have become neglected and have a tremendous voice and unique quality which can enhance the repertoire and bring audiences to their feet. Pianists like Horowitz and Rubenstein often premiered new works, which should always be part of a musician's healthy diet.

Posted by: JBiegel | December 21, 2010 7:02 AM | Report abuse

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