Orion Weiss’s star power at Terrace Theater

January 8, 2012

When you’re named after one of the biggest constellations in the night sky, the pressure is on to display a little star power — and the young pianist Orion Weiss did exactly that in a high-powered and often ferocious recital Saturday afternoon at the Terrace Theater. Weiss has been racking up an impressive string of triumphs lately (he filled in at the last minute for an ailing Leon Fleischer last summer, turning in a raved-about performance with the Boston Symphony), and Saturday’s recital showed why. Just 30, the pianist has an exceptionally clean technique with virtuosity to spare. And although Saturday’s program — which revolved around a selection of demanding toccatas — sometimes fell a little flat emotionally, it showed Weiss to be a gifted musician well worth keeping an eye on.

The recital (part of the Hayes Piano Series presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society) didn’t open on a particularly strong foot. Weiss’s take on Bach’s Toccata in C Minor, BWV 911 can only be described as ordinary, and he didn’t seem to be particularly involved in the music, tending to just underline Bach’s phrasing rather than find real meaning in it. But the pace quickly picked up. Weiss turned in a vivid account of Liszt’s Toccata, S.197a — a little dervish of a piece that bursts into life, whirls madly for a minute, then vanishes — followed by an intriguing work written for the pianist by composer Michael Brown. Titled “Constellations and Toccata,” it contrasts a “human” perspective on the heavens with a “scientific” one; the first section proved to be a sort of spare, slowly turning nocturne from which a sweeping theme emerged, while the hard-driving toccata took an ecstatic, data-driven look into the fiery heart of stars. Weiss kept everything in perfect alignment, and Brown could not hope for a more convincing account of his work.

The afternoon went on in that vein, as introspective pieces alternated with extroverted ones to varying effect. Weiss didn’t delve very deeply into five pieces from Schumann’s Bunte Blatter, Op. 99, which came off as so much Romantic mirror-gazing, but his no-holds-barred reading of the composer’s Toccata, Op. 7 more than took up the slack. And in the second half of the program, Weiss seemed to finally unleash the full reach of his talent. Brahms’s “Variations on a theme by Schumann, Op. 9” is a sort of love letter to Schumann’s wife, Clara, written when Brahms was still quite young. It’s a fascinating revelation of lovesickness and grief, emotionally subtle beyond the composer’s years, and Weiss gave it a poignant and empathetic reading.

Even more impressive, though, was Bohuslav Martinu’s Fantasie and Toccata, which closed the recital. Written in 1940 as the Czech composer fled Paris ahead of the invading German army, it’s an edgy and relentlessly gripping work, as well as a pianistic tour de force — the sort of music that elbows its way into your brain and takes over for a while. It seemed to bring out the best in Weiss. Not only did he handle its virtuosic demands with ease, he made the work into a riveting and unforgettable human experience — and isn’t that what concert-going is supposed to be about?

Brookes is a freelance writer.

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