Eric Writes About Orion Weiss

...and his history with the pianist.

In the fall of, I believe, 1995 or ‘96, the Akron Youth Symphony held an annual competition for young pianists in the area to perform a movement of a concerto with the group on its spring concert. As conductor of the orchestra, I sat in on the auditions.

One of the contestants was Orion Weiss, then a sophomore from Lyndhurst. His performance of the first movement of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 was the winning entry, and I looked forward to the challenge of conducting the work with the youth orchestra.

I visited Orion at Cleveland Institute of Music to talk through the piece, and I have several vivid recollections about that meeting. The first was that Orion was an engaging, bright kid with a ready smile and lively sense of humor.

But I also recall something truly unique about Orion—his openness. He entertained and even welcomed ideas I had about the music, interpretation and phrasing. Not only that, but he could then realize them immediately. I had worked with prodigies before, but most young players who have the technical proficiency to play a piece such as that particular concerto only know how to play it one way­­—the way they learned it. Orion could flex, try out new ideas and entertain an alternate point of view and accept or reject it as part of a process. We had a marvelous conversation in which we explored the piece together. His wide-eyed enthusiasm for music continues to impress and inspire me.

We performed that movement of the Rachmaninoff together that spring, and the following New Year's Eve, I invited him to join the Akron Symphony to perform the final movement at a First Night concert in Akron. (We have yet to perform the second movement or the entire piece together. Hmm...I wonder when.)

The following summer, as I was planning the upcoming season for the Philharmonic, I invited him to learn the Second Piano Concerto by Dmitri Shostakovich. I felt it was perfect for him—the composer wrote it as a present and career vehicle for his son, Maxim, upon his graduation from Moscow Conservatory. It is infused with youthful energy and rollicking good spirits, and the second movement is one of the most heartbreakingly lyrical movements for piano and orchestra. "It takes about twenty-five minutes to play, and you'll learn it in about thirty," I recall telling Orion. He agreed.

He came down to Dover to rehearse and perform with the orchestra. Our program was a little short, time-wise, and as we walked off stage together after the performance, the applause continued. "Last movement encore?" I asked, and I think he suggested that we just play the entire piece again. So, we walked back out on stage and did exactly that to tumultuous applause.

A few weeks later, Orion received a call from the Baltimore Symphony. The management had been calling around major players to see if anyone happened to know the Shostakovich concerto to substitute for an ailing Andre Watts. Orion's teacher at CIM had been contacted and recommended him, and he performed with the orchestra in a series of weekend concerts during his senior year. (His deliriously happy mother called me soon after to ask me what he should learn next!)

Orion went to Juilliard and set out on his career, and he returned to perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with us the next year.

I have seen Orion a few times since that Tchaik performance—we have met for dinner in New York, and I saw him perform the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom. My sons and I went to greet him after that concert as he signed copies of his recently released CD that included one of my favorites, the Piano Sonata by the American composer Elliott Carter.

I pointed this out to him and asked what prompted him to learn the piece. "You told me to," he replied.

Well, all these years later, we're joining up with this marvelous musician again. On April 22, in fact, we get to do Rhapsody In Blue with the man, among other treats. You'll see for yourself.

Eric Benjamin

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