Concert preview: Orion Weiss & Salzburg Marionette Theater

Pianist and puppets open a musical toy box.


“I had a marionette once,” stated pianist Orion Weiss. “But I’d play with it for ten seconds and then the strings would all be tangled. The Salzburg Marionette Theater will have twelve puppets on stage, more than the number of puppeteers, but they never get tangled up. It’s amazing! I guess it’s like playing the piano. People are like ‘Oh my god, how do you play two hands at once?’ Everyone thinks that’s the hardest part, but that’s not really the hardest part. The hardest part is discovering the subtlety of it all.”

Orion Weiss performs Sunday at Portland State University. Photo: Scott Meivogel.

Orion Weiss performs Sunday at Portland State University.

Weiss is always looking for the next musical adventure, whether it’s performing Christopher Rouse’s piano concerto Seeing (1998), commissioning Constellation and Toccata (2012) from pianist-composer Michael Davis, releasing his latest recording of Scarlatti sonatas, or as in his upcoming Friends of Chamber Music performance Sunday at Portland State University, hopping on stage with a cast of puppets to perform Debussy’s little-known piece La Boîte à joujoux (The Toy Box) along with short ear-pleasers by Schumann.

Debussy composed The Toy Box in 1913 for a ballet inspired by an illustrated story by artist André Hellé. Debussy himself described the plot saying, “A cardboard soldier loves a doll: he seeks to prove this to her, but the ‘belle’ deceives him with a ‘polichinelle.’ The soldier learns of her affair and terrible things happen: battles between wooden soldiers and ‘polichinelles’. In brief, the lover of the pretty doll is gravely wounded during the battle. The doll nurses and cares for him and…everything turns out for the best.”

Originally from Ohio and now living in New York, Weiss last performed in Portland in July with his wife and duet-partner Anna Polonsky premiering Stephen Hartke’s Piano Sonata for Four Hands, commissioned by Chamber Music Northwest in honor of this powerhouse piano couple and their new baby girl Alia. Weiss recently talked with OAW about his magical relationship with the piano, his rehearsals with the Salzburg Marionette Theater, and his experience performing Schumann’s Papillons.

OAW: Describe the production.

Orion Weiss: It’s quite a surprising production! The characters are toys, and the set itself is a box of toys. Characters are always popping in and out of this toy box. The toys come to life, the set comes to life, and you feel multiple layers of character interaction as the plot unfolds. You see the puppeteers controlling the toys and even playing some parts within the play. For my part, I’m supposed to both be there and not be there. For example, there’s this one beautiful moment where a puppet comes and sits on my shoulder. I’m not just the music part but also a character in the play. I was laughing the whole time during rehearsals!

OAW: What does it mean to be an engaged listener, and how do you engage listeners in classical music?

For almost every piece of music there is a story, and if you can get any listener, whether child or adult, to engage their imagination in telling the story of the music, then the music will resonate. We often expect stories to be spelled out for us, but to be an engaged listener you must be open and imaginative and thinking and dreaming while you are listening.

One fabulous aspect about our program is that I am not only playing the Debussy with the marionettes where the story is very clear, very funny, very engaging, but I am also going to play music where the story is hidden and you have to dream it up yourself.

OAW: How do you maintain a sense of enchantment with the piano?

What I love about my career are the many possibilities that have opened up to me because I am a pianist. There is so much variety with what you can do on stage. Whether I’m in front of an orchestra, behind a string quartet, or on stage with puppets, I’m enjoying every aspect. All these various experiences inform each other, enrich my life and hopefully enrich my playing. Ultimately these experiences make me very happy. For example, I had no idea this Debussy piece even existed until this project, and it was very exciting to discover this piece for myself.

OAW: How does being a father inform your life as a pianist?

My daughter loves pressing buttons and discovering what effect she can have on the world, what she can change, what she can move, what actions create which consequences. The piano is the ultimate action-consequence machine. It’s so clear that what you are doing has immediate consequence, and you can achieve such beautiful consequences the more you experiment with and work at the piano. Maybe that’s why, in terms of jobs, being a pianist is the easiest job in which to keep one’s sense of enchantment. You can obviously get distracted by the stress of paying bills, but it’s not that hard to stay grounded in music or maybe it’s the opposite: to stay floating in the music and keep being inspired. I still feel like Alia pushing buttons and creating amazing effects. And of course, occasionally you press the wrong button, and then have to work on that.

OAW: What does it mean to be grounded versus floating in music?

Music feels like this space where your feet don’t have to be on the ground, where you can dream and use your imagination and experiment. You can’t do any of that when you’re taking care of daily requirements like paying your cable bill. But in piano you need to feel like you can be dreaming. Not just playing by rote over and over again. Music does not engage the listener, does not sound good, unless it presents something brand new, presents spontaneity, presents a multitude of possible worlds and you get swept up needing to find these worlds. Even in the same piece of music the story ends up being different from performance to performance.

OAW: Debussy still feels fresh to ears of the classically non-initiated, but Schumann often sounds so passé. What story does Schumann tell that is valuable to the modern listener?

Yes, I can hear him in that way. In Papillons, Schumann presents a series of waltzes which definitely feel antiquated. Very little pop music is ever in three [waltz meter] anymore; if anything, what we dance to now has an urging, pulsing beat, not like Schumann’s Papillons, which have a lilt and a swing. But there is such intimacy and directness to Schumann’s voice; for me, he is one of the most personal communicators. His voice is so honest, so directly from him. It’s amazing how hard it is to put things that you know about music into words.

spielzeugschachtel-n3-maxSchumann wasn’t bound by conventions in many ways, particularly when it came to form. For example, in Papillons there is an introduction and twelve short dances. There’s a unity to the piece but at the same time, every dance is unique; excepting the first dance which is heard again at the very end, the dances do not continue into the next. It’s strange to think of an entire piece of music being disparate segments unified primarily by the pause, the spaces between them. The dances keep stopping, but there’s always new music on the other side. These pauses become the fabric that binds them all together. By having the first dance come back, the piece sounds like it’s beginning again, but it’s now a memory of what came before.

OAW: How do you stay grounded as a person while becoming suspended in the magic of being a pianist?

Maybe it’s like what Schumann did with these rests between the dances. He’s able to have all these parts, these 12 different dances, complete the same story even though they are not intrinsically related. But ultimately, because of the pauses, these 12 dances are related and you can only hear that when they are performed as a whole, side-by-side. Maybe it’s the same with me. All these aspects of my life are separate but completely connected. Time-wise I have to take separate times to practice, to be a father, and to be a husband. They are separate but complete me as the same person.

Friends of Chamber Music present Orion Weiss with The Salzburg Marionette Theater on October 26, at 3:00 pm at Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland State University. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door, $33-$50.

Jana Hanchett is a piano teacher living in Portland.

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