For pianist Orion Weiss, playing Mozart is sort of like playing a video game.
“The more you learn and the more you play, you build ‘experience points,’ ” Weiss said.
Weiss’ touring itinerary includes a mix of concerto appearances and chamber performances. The first time Weiss came to Chautauqua Institution, he performed a Beethoven trio with musicians from ChamberFest Cleveland. This time, Weiss will perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488, at 8:15 p.m. Thursday in the Amphitheater with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. Music Director Rossen Milanov will return from a vacation in Japan to lead the orchestra.
Weiss first learned the concerto as a high school student taking piano lessons at the Cleveland Institute of Music. However, he didn’t perform it with an orchestra until about four years ago.
“You gain understanding in each (concerto) that lends depth and clarity to the next one,” Weiss said.
In many ways, tonight’s concerto is similar to the other 20-odd concertos Mozart wrote for piano and orchestra (the official count varies).
This concerto introduces the main themes in the orchestra before the soloist enters. The melodies themselves are simple yet operatic. The orchestral accompaniment is relatively homogenous and static, letting the pianist be the star of the show.
Still, there are some special moments that make this one of Mozart’s most popular and expressive concertos. For example, about two-thirds of the way through the first movement, Mozart could have made a predictable, clean transition into the cadenza.
“But instead he decided to do something really kind of magical,” Weiss said. “He adds another enormous piece of music” which reinvigorates the piece just before the virtuosic piano solo.
The piece’s second movement also sets it apart from the other Mozart concertos. The orchestral texture becomes more nuanced, with woodwinds taking turns intoning a weeping sicilienne melody.
“The second movement has more tragedy than the other concertos,” Weiss said. “It’s a heartbreaking movement.”
Mozart’s music, according to Weiss, is successful regardless of what form it takes, be it a string quartet, a solo sonata or a concerto.
“I like going from one to another,” Weiss said. “Playing a violin sonata or set of variations will contribute to how I think about playing a concerto.”
In Weiss’ experience, playing a concerto requires a different level of exertion compared to other genres.
“Your energy and your characters have to be a little bit more broad and overstated because you’re playing with so many more people,” Weiss said. “The music generally has a bigger scope and is more dramatic.”
Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 will close the evening, but the program opens with another concerto of sorts. American composer Christopher Theofanidis’ “Muse” was modeled after the third Brandenburg Concerto by Johann Sebastian Bach. Instead of using a single soloist, Bach’s six concerti grossi juxtapose a small group of virtuoso players against a larger backup ensemble.
In a 2007 interview, Theofanidis said the piece’s title “is supposed to be a tip of the hat to the master,” meaning Bach himself. Theofanidis’ take on the third Brandenburg preserves the original’s Baroque instrumentation, complete with harpsichord.
“It’s the electric guitar of the Baroque,” Theofanidis said.
Theofanidis also adopted many of the musical mannerisms of the Baroque period, some of which are already part of his own musical style.
“I love trills, I confess,” Theofanidis said.