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Q & A with Pianist Jonathan Biss: Fighting Hunger with Classical Concerts in Philadelphia

Benjamin Ealovega
Pianist Jonathan Biss is artistic director of Music for Food in Philadelphia.

Music for Food is a national effort to fight hunger at the local level, through funds raised at classical music concerts. Pianist Jonathan Biss has spearheaded the inaugural year of the Philadelphia chapter of Music for Food with help from Curtis Institute of Music faculty and students.

There is something about knowing that everybody in the room is also there trying to achieve some common goal.

On Thursday evening, March 15th, the final of three local Music for Food concerts takes place at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, just off Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. The proceeds will benefit St. Mark’s Church Food Cupboard. More concerts are planned for next season.

Launched in 2010 in Boston by violist Kim Kashkashian, Music for Food has attracted volunteer cellists, violinists, vocalists and other instrumentalists from around the country—New York, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and now Philadelphia. 

The next Music for Food concert is at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Center City on March 15th. Proceeds will support their Food Cupboard.

The Music for Food Philadelphia series began last fall with a concert at Curtis to benefit Broad Street Ministry. A second concert was at the First Unitarian Church to benefit the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission.

Despite its cultural richness, Philadelphia has the highest rate of poverty among the 10 largest cities in United States. Poverty has a direct impact on the ability to feed a family, or oneself. Music for Food Artistic Director Jonathan Biss spoke with WRTI’s Meridee Duddleston about the motivation behind his involvement and more.

Q: You have history of engaging in music in multiple ways. In addition to performing, you write, and you teach. What compelled you to get involved in this effort to alleviate hunger and food insecurity? 

A: I’m really interested in the idea of sharing music on as many levels as possible, and I’ve never liked the word “outreach” because it makes it seem extracurricular. I’m interested in the ways in which sharing music can be seen as an essential way of being in a society.

Music for Food really exemplifies that. It’s about us as musicians using our talents to fill a social need. Music for Food asks musicians to think about how they can practice their art in a way that has an impact on the larger world. It’s mission is also based on the idea that music is a necessity for life, just as food is. Music for Food blends those two ideals.

Q What special weight can a socially active performer bring to a cause?

A: If a performer is at all successful it has to do with the fact that they are passionate about what they do and they are able to project that passion to an audience. If that’s the case and you’re playing the concert for a particular cause, that communicates a passion for the message. Of course, having a certain public image gives one more of a platform, and I think whatever platform you have, you should use with care.

Q: What have you discovered or been surprised to learn? 

A:  One surprise is the amount of activism in the city, the number of people who are really committed to dealing with social justice. It’s really inspiring.

Another thing I’ve found, which I didn’t necessarily expect, is that there is a different energy in the concerts. I’d like to think that people always go to concerts because they’re enthusiastic about hearing music. But there is something about knowing that everybody in the room is also there trying to achieve some common goal. The musicians are donating their time and their abilities, and the audience members are donating what they can towards this cause, so there is this sense of community, or communion, between audience and performers.

I’m not saying it doesn’t exist in other concerts. When a concert goes well it does, but it’s a different kind of a community and that’s a really nice thing to feel.

Q: Music for Food held a concert at Curtis for the Broad Street Ministry last fall and another in January at the First Unitarian Church for Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission. How did they do financially?

In both of the concerts we raised enough for 5,000 or 6,000 meals each. I would love for it to be 500,000, but it’s a good foundation to build on. The plan is to have another three-concert series next year. We’re just now in the planning stages for next year. We want to be in the community in as broad a sense as possible.

Q: There is this perception, (I’m thinking of the Farm Aid Concerts) that classical musicians are not so involved in broader social issues.

A: There is frequent criticism of classical musicians that we live in a bubble, or even an ivory tower. I’d like to think it’s not entirely fair, but there’s something in it. And it’s very possible while you’re worrying about trying to play as well as you possibly can, (and it’s never good enough) that you get very very myopic and you don’t necessarily see beyond your own nose.

When I think about it I could definitely list some classical musicians who have done amazing things. Midori runs her own foundations. One is devoted to music education. Another brings music to the remotest areas of Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. People like Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin were very broadly social-minded. But maybe they’re exceptions and not the rules.

Maybe we can be a little 'priestly' about what we do in that playing music in a way that brings beauty in the world is contribution enough. Music is an incredibly enriching force in my life. And I’d like to think in a lot of other people’s lives too. But we’ve got a lot of other very fundamental problems. I just think whatever your profession, your life circumstances, you shouldn’t go to sleep at night not being able to say I did what I could.

Q: Can you tell me more about the concerts? 

A:  Nobody’s paid. I recruit the faculty members. They decide the program they play. I’m so grateful to the fellow faculty members at Curtis who’ve agreed to take part. I give them control over what they want to play. We ask for a minimum donation, but people give more. Artistic Director is kind of a grand title to describe my role in this organization.

Q: You recently moved to Philadelphia after living in New York.

A:  I was a student here 20-some years ago. In the interim I lived in New York and I only moved back last year. I love it here and I feel very at home. But I think one of the things that has really made me feel that I belong here, and that I’m a member of this community, is Music for Food. My hope is that it helps provide a sense of community for the people who go to the concerts as well.

Thursday, March 15, 7 PM
Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, 1625 Locust Street

Performers include Angela Sin Ying Chan, violin; Mikael Eliasen, piano; Vartan Gabrielian, tenor; Sophia Hunt, mezzo-soprano; Evan Johnson, baritone; Hae Sue Lee, viola; Seula Lee, viola; Miloš Repický piano; Ashley Robillard, soprano; Emily Shehi, violin; Peter Wiley, cello


Rossini, “Una voce poco fa” from Barber of Seville (Sophia Hunt, mezzo-soprano)

Gounod, “Ah! Lève-toi, soleil” from Roméo et Juliette (Evan Johnson, tenor)

Puccini, “Musetta’s waltz” from La Bohème (Ashley Robillard, soprano)

Rodgers, “Some enchanted evening” from South Pacific (Vartan Gabrielian, bass-baritone)

Brahms, Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op. 52 (Ashley Robillard, soprano; Sophia Hunt, mezzo-soprano; Vartan Gabrielian, tenor; Evan Johnson, baritone; Milos Repicky, piano; Mikael Eliasen, piano)

Dvo?ák, String Quintet in Eb Major, Op. 97
Allegro non tanto
Allegro vivo
Finale: Allegro giusto

(Angela Sin Ying Chan, violin; Emily Shehi, violin; Hae Sue Lee, viola; Seula Lee, viola; Peter Wiley, cello)

Donations of $20+, $10+ students/seniors, collected at the door. This concert benefits Saint Mark’s Church Food Cupboard.