It’s hard to imagine legendary piano virtuosos like Arthur Rubinstein or Rudolf Serkin teaming up with the Salzburg Marionette Theatre, yet that is exactly what Orion Weiss did last fall when he toured North America with the company. “It was such a nice fit, because I love that kind of strange, fun project,” he said.
The internationally recognized pianist, a 1999 winner of the prestigious Gilmore Young Artist Award, is part of new generation of classical artists who make cross-genre collaborations of all kinds an integral part of their pursuits. Weiss was inspired by famed pianist Emanuel Ax, his teacher at New York’s Juilliard School, who has performed with the Mark Morris Dance Group and recorded an album of tangos by Astor Piazzolla. “He’s done every possible, imaginable thing a piano can be used for,” Weiss said of Ax. “Why not explore all the avenues that make our lives exciting? And that’s what so great about being a pianist — that there are so many different, diverse situations you find yourself in, not just always playing solo recitals and concertos.”
Chicago audiences will have a burst of opportunities to hear Weiss in an unusually wide range of repertoire and settings during the next several months. “It’s a coincidence,” he said. “Things just happen sometimes, but I’m excited about it. I love Chicago.”
First off, the pianist joins guest conductor Edo de Waart for concerts March 26 and 28 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and then he returns April 10-12 for the University of Chicago’s “Centenary Weekend: The Crossroads of World War I and Music,” a weekend of lectures and concerts exploring the war’s impact on 20th-century music. Finally, back at Symphony Center, he joins cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the CSO’s creative consultant, and two CSO members in a performance May 17 of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” which the composer wrote in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II.
For his March concerts, which will mark his CSO subscription series debut, Weiss will be featured in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503. After completing the work in December 1786, Mozart played it in Vienna that same month. “It’s not one of the most popular of the Mozart concertos,” Weiss said. “It’s not been used in as many movies, and it’s not as hummable as some of the other ones. But it’s just as magnificent. It’s a piece that I started playing a couple of years ago and was just blown away that it wasn’t one that had I studied earlier on. It’s got these unbelievable ideas and so much invention and surprise.”
Born in Iowa City in 1981, Weiss began taking piano lessons there at age 3 at the respected Preucil School of Music. He moved as a child with his family to Lyndhurst, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, and from 1995 through 2000, he studied piano with Paul Schenly and other teachers at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He would leave his high school around noon and travel to the conservatory, where he would spend the rest of day taking lessons, practicing or spending time with other budding musicians. “It was kind of like being at Hogwarts,” he said, making a reference to the fictional school of witchcraft and wizardry in the Harry Potter novels. “I started working really hard, and seeing that you could really spend every hour of the day, that you weren’t eating or sleeping, playing the piano and enjoy it. That’s when I realized that I could make it into my life.”
In February 1999, Weiss made his Cleveland Orchestra debut in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and just a month later, he filled in for André Watts on less than a day’s notice in a performance of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The substitution went so well that he was invited back that fall for a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
After graduating from high school, he attended Juilliard and studied with Ax, a childhood idol whom he met during a master class in Cleveland. “He still remained,” Weiss said of the elder pianist, “one of the most important musical inspirations in my life — a guide, a mentor and a friend, everything I would have wanted him to be when I was a kid listening to his recordings. I got really lucky.”
Weiss found Ax to be every bit as personable and generous one on one as he comes off in public. “You know that he cares about music,” Weiss said, “so it makes you take it seriously and work and be honest about it and have integrity. I think it’s all connected. His kindness is part of his music-making, is part of what’s him so great.”
Weiss is married to Anna Polonsky, with whom he regularly performs two-piano concertos as well as duo-piano and four-hand recitals, in which the two musicians are side by side at the same keyboard. “I think we’re particularly good at playing four-hand,” he said, “because we like each other. You don’t mind sitting so close for so long and bumping elbows all the time.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based freelance writer.