Pianist Weiss says he’s blessed with interest others have shown in him

Orion Weiss, just 26 and with a burgeoning international career, will play Mozart’s Piano Concerto i
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When pianist Orion Weiss’ mother named her son after the hunter constellation, she didn’t realize it was a prescient choice.

“My Mom thought it was a cool name,” Weiss said from New York City. “But I’m not as interested in the stars as she was when she named me.”

Weiss, who will play Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Major on Thursday through Saturday with the Albany Symphony Orchestra, might want to reconsider that attitude. His career seems to have had some celestial assistance. At 26, he’s not won an international competition and he was not a prodigy. “Never that,” Weiss said. All he’s done, has been to have good teachers and work hard. Yet he has a burgeoning international career.

“It’s just luck and a string of coincidences,” Weiss said. “Nice people have taken notice of me. I’ve been blessed.”

His interest in the piano didn’t begin auspiciously. He started piano at age 3, but his parents, both doctors in the Cleveland area, had to force him to practice. By 10, though, he’d fallen in love with the piano and started to practice. At 14, his teachers got him an audition with Emanuel Ax, who was impressed enough that he agreed to teach Weiss should the student ever come to New York City.

Three years later after he played for members of the Cleveland Orchestra, the musicians recommended him for a matinee concert with the orchestra to play Listz’s first piano concerto. A month later, his teacher got a call from Baltimore Symphony Orchestra officials who were looking for a pianist to replace an ailing Andre Watts in Shostakovich’s second piano concerto on 24 hours notice. Somehow, they’d heard of him.

“I’d just played that at a lesson and my teacher told them that, yes, I could play the piece,” Weiss said.

He was such a sensation that the Baltimore Symphony invited him back for the next season to play Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto. Weiss got some management and began to think of where to go for college. He called Ax, who taught a few students at the Juilliard School, and Ax agreed to take him on.

“I applied to no other school,” Weiss said.

Ax has an incredibly busy performance schedule, but he always managed to give Weiss at least three lessons a month.

“He’s a wonderful inspiration. He’s as articulate with his words as his music,” Weiss said. “His playing is so colorful and creative and without gimmicks or frills. That’s how I’d like to emulate him.”

During his academic years, Weiss gave regular recitals and solo orchestral appearances that had to fit into his class schedule. Fellow student pianists were very supportive.

“It was very collegial. No one was trying to take my eye teeth [with envy],” he said with a laugh.

Once he graduated in 2004, his performance career became more full time. He toured with the Bavarian Philharmonic and played Beethoven’s fifth concerto seven times in eight days. Last year, he toured with the Israel Philharmonic under Itzhak Perlman to play Chopin’s second concerto in the same time frame.

His ASO appearance comes from having worked with conductor David Alan Miller two years ago when Miller was guest-conducting the Minnesota Symphony. This spring, his debut CD on Yarlung Records should be out, he said.

He’ll also appear as a soloist this summer at the Blossom Music Festival in Cleveland.

“When I was young, my parents would take me to the festival and I’d fall asleep on the lawn. This will be a grand return,” he said.

The Mozart concerto he’ll play with the ASO has a second movement famously used in the 1967 film “Elvira Madigan.”

“I’m aware of its fame, but I’ll approach it with the same level of focus on the composer’s intentions. Maybe I’ll find something new,” he said. “The concerto is not bravura but shows off the beauty of the instrument and is very mind-fatiguing because of its levels of emotion and thought.”

ALSO ON THE PROGRAM

Weiss is not the only soloist for the ASO concert. The program, which is billed “Love Letters,” opens with the world premiere of Neil Rolnick’s slightly amplified “Love Songs” for voice, violin and orchestra. Rolnick is a long-time associate of Miller, having co-founded the ASO’s avant-garde group, Dogs of Desire, with him in 1994.

Vocalist Theo Bleckmann, who has made more than 40 recordings in a wide range of genres, and violinist Todd Reynolds, who is at home with jazz and classical as he is electronic and avant-garde music, will guest. Rolnick used Larry Beinhart’s lyrics, which are about traditional love that trace relationships from the first hormonal rush through a person’s lifetime.

“I wanted to show the high points and the struggle,” Rolnick said. “How a relationship develops and goes through these moments and something unanticipated comes from that. The final song is about facing death yet how lucky one is in life if love comes along.”

There will be some computer sampling but Rolnick said they should be seamless transitions.

“It’s not like bringing a spaceship into the concert hall,” he said.

Schumann’s vivacious Symphony No. 1 in B-flat Major (“Spring”) is also scheduled.

Albany Symphony Orchestra

WHO: Guest soloists Orion Weiss, piano; Theo Bleckmann, vocalist; and Todd Reynolds, violin

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Canfield Casino, Saratoga Springs; 8 p.m. Friday at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall; 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield.

HOW MUCH: $27, $26, Saratoga Springs and Pittsfield; $46 to $23, Troy.

MORE INFO: 465-4755, 273-0038

Categories: Life and Arts

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