Date with beloved concerto in B-flat 'Against all odds': Pianist Lisa Weiss will play out a dream when she gives her first performance of the romantic Brahms work at Goucher College.

April 09, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Every teen-aged pianist dreams of playing his or her favorite concerto. The piece -- it's usually Brahms or Rachmaninoff -- is almost impossibly difficult to play, and it is heart-throbbingly romantic. The conquest of its complexities -- in the adolescent imagination, at any rate -- is motivated as much by the onset of hormones as by musical ambition.

"Kids are often too shy to express themselves and the fantasy behind this fantasy is that [the music] will make certain people fall in love with you," says Lisa Weiss.

Tomorrow evening in Kraushaar Auditorium on the Goucher College campus, Weiss will play the piano concerto of her dreams, the Brahms B-flat, with the Goucher Chamber Symphony and conductor Sabrina Alfonso.

Although she is sufficiently youthful-looking to be mistaken for one of her students at Goucher, Weiss, 43, fell in love with this concerto, the longest and perhaps most challenging in the standard repertory, more than 30 years ago. Yet, tomorrow's concert will be the first time she has ever performed it.

"I can't learn the shape of a piece unless I do it on stage," she says. "You have to have that terrifying physical experience of being out there alone."

Weiss has no illusions of matching the famous Sviatoslav Richter-Chicago Symphony recording.

"But at least I'll be able to say I played it," she says. "Against all odds, things do seem to happen in their own time and when they should happen."

Playing the Brahms was a dream back in the summer of 1965, when she was 12-year-old piano student at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York and was befriended by two 16-year-old boys, each of whom was learning the B-flat concerto.

She was intellectually precocious (she was already reading 19th-century Russian literature) and already pretty enough to be teased, although too naive to understand why one of the boys, now a well-known composer, liked to read Dostoevski aloud to her under one of the giant oaks by the lake.

But in dreams begin responsibilities. Within a few years, Weiss was a student at Harvard, working as a protege of the composer Leon Kirchner and as a piano student of Russell Sherman, who is as celebrated for the vision of his Beethoven playing as for the virtuosity of his Liszt. After Harvard, she studied at Yale with the pianists Claude Frank and Richard Goode, while commuting to Cambridge every week for lessons with Kirchner.

By the time she arrived at Goucher in the early '80s, Weiss was a young pianist with a pronounced taste for chamber music and an ability to master contemporary music of the most challenging kind.

She married -- she and her husband Howard, an artist, have a 6-year-old son, Billy -- and she continued her studies, this time with Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Institute, where she earned a doctorate.

The responsibilities of a full-time college professor and mother made it necessary for her to pursue music in a manner different from that which she dreamed about during that summer in Chautauqua.

"I can only imagine what it's like to play so many concerts," she says sadly, when she is told that a friend, a world-famous pianist who is only a few years older than Weiss, suffers from tendinitis apparently caused by the same over-use syndrome that prematurely ended Leon Fleisher's two-handed career.

And she wishes that her responsibilities to her family and students had left her more time to work with Fleisher. "I just couldn't act like a full-time student," she says. "I had serious priorities that were were different than those of most of his students."

But a little over a year ago things began to change for Weiss.

First there was Sabrina Alfonso's invitation to perform with the Goucher Chamber Symphony this season -- not to mention that the young conductor didn't pass out when Weiss suggested the Brahms B-flat. Then there was the time freed because Billy was in school -- time that meant she was able to spend several hours with Fleisher working on the Brahms.

"Working with him this time was fun, and we went over every note," she says. "But all his advice was not as valuable as what I was able to internalize. At some point you have to forget the voices of your teachers and listen to your own. It's taken a long time, but I think I have evolved from a very shy person to a very shy person who's willing to go out and do it.

She no longer wants to play Brahms' B-flat simply because she wants to be loved.

"There's a lot of vanity involved in playing a piece like that," Weiss says. "You think you want to play it because you think you want to be a success. The real reasons only reveal themselves later, and they're revealing themselves now: It's a chance to say something honestly."

Pub Date: 4/09/96

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