Review: Oron Weiss’s “War And Peace”

By Jamie Washington, Reporter


Elizabeth Caluda, left, and Leva Jokubaviciute, right listen to soloist Orion Weiss provide insight into the the “World of Piano.” (Photo by Alisa Daum)

Orion Weiss, “one of the most sought-after soloists in his generation of young American musicians” according to the official Conservatory website, took the audience on an emotional journey through his programmatic suite entitled “War and Peace” on Sunday in Armstrong Concert Hall.

Pieces by the composers William Byrd, Leoš Janáček, and Dmitri Shostakovich created the first half of the suite, with a work by Frédéric Chopin and numerous works by Maurice Ravel following after intermission.

A pre-concert talk in the auditorium of Armstrong Hall began the Sunday evening of music and was led by Assistant Professor of Piano Ieva Jokubaviciute and Professor of Piano Elizabeth Caluda.

During the talk, Weiss’s sense of humor shone when, after Jokubaviciute said that she did not know many of the pieces he was performing, Weiss said, “Me neither.”

Weiss said the theme of his programmatic suite was that of reaction to war, and how some pieces that fit this theme were simply chosen by chance.

Time was given for audience questions. When asked by one man what it was like to come and talk before a performance, Weiss had wisdom to offer.

“It’s fun!” he said. “Sometimes if you get into a routine you need something to snap you out of it.”

He added that he doesn’t have a routine.

Caluda said that transcendentalism in music is “the feeling of being in a trance, of glimpsing another world.” She quoted Aldous Huxley: “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”

Before taking his seat at the piano, Weiss discussed the history of the works by Leoš Janáček that he would perform. He described Janáček as a nationalist and someone whose pieces were political, with the origins of these particular Janáček pieces being the result of the composer witnessing the death of a man by a bayonet.

As Byrd’s piece rose and fell, so did Weiss, his body going up and down with the song. The attention that he displayed toward the narrative he was weaving drew the audience in. Even when he paused long enough in the piece to prompt applause, the audience instead sat in silence, waiting for his next note.

Some 20 minutes into the performance however, the mood of the room shifted into one of anxiety and melancholy, signaling the end of Byrd’s works and the distinct beginning of Janáček’s pieces. Weiss’ posture also became stiffer at the start of these pieces, with his head occasionally shaking back and forth as if in fear of something. When he finished performing Janáček, Weiss left the stage to thunderous applause and then returned to complete the first half of his suite with Shostakovich’s “Sonota No. 2 in B Minor, op. 61.”

Though Weiss gave descriptions of all three parts that comprised Shostakovich’s sonata, the description that seemed to intrigue the audience the most was that of the second part, II. Largo. He described the sound of it as a “decaying jazz club,” a description that proved accurate when, during the show, the second part grew increasingly more ominous. Throughout all of Shostakovich’s works Weiss seemed more physically involved in them, sometimes even momentarily lifting himself from his seat when playing a strong note.

The third piece of the section, III. Moderato, seemed to seamlessly blend together the gentler feelings of the first piece and the dark passion of the second, bringing a pleasant end to the first half of Weiss’s performance.

After the end of intermission, Weiss did not preface the second half of his performance with a speech, but instead began immediately to play Chopin’s Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major op. 47. It was evident during this piece that the audience was somewhat distracted. However, as Weiss leaned back with his final note of Chopin resonating through the air, it immediately drew the audience back into the world he was creating.

When describing the final composer, Weiss said that Maurice Ravel’s works looked to the past and each piece that he was to perform was created in dedication to an individual who had died during World War I. He also said that, when Ravel had once been asked why the pieces were not sad despite their morbid dedications, he said, “The dead are sad enough in their eternal silence.”

As he began to play, Weiss’s movements were more reserved than they had previously been, yet, at the same time, Orion seemed to have achieved perfect synchronicity between himself and his music. Weiss gave the performance a powerful, resounding final note that matched the grandness of the program. Following a round of applause, Weiss told us he had one final piece to perform which was not listed in the program.

This secret piece was based on three notes and three words: “Stop the war.” The piece involved Weiss saying these three words in numerous tones and inflections, as well as a mixture of his thumping on and playing the piano. The piano playing was loud and eclectic and, as it progressed, the audience seemed to grow antsier and more distracted. Many of them visibly shifted in their seats or looked away from the stage. Since it was not listed in the program, it is unclear as to whether Weiss created this piece himself.

After the conclusion, audience members could be heard whispering their concerns about the insurance policy on the piano due to Weiss’s thumping. Despite most of the audience saying that they “didn’t really get it,” they also said that they still found the piece interesting. With its deviation from what is considered the “usual” way to play the piano, the piece definitely felt artsier than the other pieces had.

Overall, Weiss used his programmatic suite as a means to create a passionate narrative of war and peace. His love for his craft was evident in both his piano playing and in the historical definitions and backstories he gave about nearly all of his pieces and composers. While his secret piece did not appeal to audience in the same way that his other pieces had, it was still a passionate part of the story he wished to tell through his performance. It also ultimately had the same physical movement and emotional intentions as all the other pieces.

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