Orion Weiss believes Mozart’s piano concertos never fail to captivate

Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Orion Weiss’ dependable, top-level artistry has made the American pianist a regular at many of the world’s premier music venues.

He will return Nov. 30 and Dec. 1-2 and 5 to Symphony Center to join guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488.

Mozart wrote 27 piano concertos, including a pair for two and three pianos respectively and some early arrangements of keyboard sonatas by other composers, and they are considered to be among his greatest achievements. Weiss estimates that he has performed about a dozen of them so far. “My life won’t be long enough to really spend the time with them that I would love to.

 “It’s very hard to choose which of the Mozart concertos to do,” he said. “You’re never disappointed with whichever one you end up settling on.”

Rounding out the program is Mozart’s Six German Dances, K. 509, and Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1, one of three celebrated works that the esteemed German composer wrote for the combination.

Weiss has performed with the CSO previously at the Ravinia Festival and Symphony Center, including the ensemble’s 2012 Keys to the City festival, curated by Emanuel Ax, Weiss’ teacher at New York’s Juilliard School. “I hope they are not sick of me yet,” Weiss said with a chuckle.

Now 41, he was born in Iowa City and took his first lessons at the Preucil School of Music, founded by the mother of William Preucil, concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1995 through 2018. When he was 4, the budding pianist moved with his family to Lyndhurst, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, and continued his studies there. He took part in a high-school program at the Cleveland Institute of Music and then moved to New York after graduation to study at the Juilliard School.

“I went to Juilliard because I loved playing the piano more than anything else, more than any other subject,” he said. “I was just so utterly enthralled by the challenges and the endless repertoire. Each new piece was a discovery. I loved doing it, but I guess I was too young to think about what a career would mean. I just felt that I didn’t want to do anything else, and it slowly became a career bit by bit.”

But whether he was ready to acknowledge it or not, his professional career was already well under way when he left fo Juilliard in 2000. After making his debut with the Cleveland Orchestra in February 1999, he filled in the next month on less than a day’s notice for an ailing André Watts with the Baltimore Symphony.

That fall, with the visibility of those two concerts and the help of famed violinist Itzhak Perlman (the two met at the Perlman Music Program, a summer institute for gifted young musicians on Long Island, N.Y), he was signed by IMG Artists. Because of those early professional milestones, Weiss was able to circumvent the competitions, which many young pianists use to get noticed. In 2004, Symphony magazine and Musical America both highlighted him as part of the next generation of great artists in classical music.

While Weiss performs his share of orchestral concerts and solo recitals, he is more devoted to chamber music than many of his peers. He performs regularly, for example, with violinists Augustin Hadelich (the two appeared together at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 15) and James Ehnes, as well as the Ariel, Parker and Pacifica quartets. As part of the Winter Chamber Music Festival at Northwestern University in Evanston, he will join the Ariel Quartet Jan. 7 for Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57.

“There are a lot of opportunities in the chamber-music world, and I’ve made a lot of wonderful friends there,” he said. Weiss also likes the camaraderie — having fellow musicians with whom to travel or to chat over dinner. “A lot of the time when you’re traveling for concertos or [solo] recitals, you’re just alone,” he said.

In addition, playing chamber music has helped Weiss obtain a fuller understanding of composer’s voices and gain insights into other areas of their repertoire. “I always felt like if I learned a Beethoven trio that I would be able to play my Beethoven [piano] sonata with more understanding and be able to communicate the ideas more clearly,” he said. 

Weiss sees each facet of his career interrelating and nourishing the other. “I always thought of a career as not just a single line but a series of different patches that make a quilt,” he said, “There’s the relationship you have with this violinist or this quartet, with this orchestra, with a certain kind of repertoire or with an area of the world, and all those things piece together to fill up a freelancer’s time and make something out of all those pieces.”