If Anna Polonsky and Orion Weiss ever decide to quit their careers as pianists, they should consider going into business as a comedy team. They have their roles down pat: He’s the balding, bespectacled, fast-talking boy wonder. She’s more languid and sardonic, casting laughing, mock-sulking sidelong looks at him, full of affection and skepticism.
These two favorites at the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s summer and winter festivals have a screwball sense of repartee. Back in January, when they were rehearsing a four-hands piano piece by Dvorák (“Slavonic Dances”), the humor wasn’t just verbal but physical.
“He has to make himself concave,” Polonsky explained as they sat side by side at the keyboard, “because my elbow has to go into his stomach.”
“And I’ve been eating so much,” Weiss lamented, “that I don’t have anything to concave into!”
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Four-hands piano, it seems, is an intimate business.
Polonsky and Weiss will both perform during the second week of SCMS’ 2014 Summer Festival. No four-hands piano pieces are scheduled, alas. But they’ll bring their individual keyboard magic to piano quintets by Shostakovich (Weiss) and Vaughan Williams (Polonsky) and solo-piano works by Debussy (Weiss) and Haydn (Polonsky). They’ll also provide accompaniment for a variety of vocal works, a newly expanded component of the festival.
The couple won’t just be bringing their talent to town, but their 17-month-old daughter, Alia. The logistics of traveling the concert circuit with a toddler in tow sound intimidating. But Polonsky and Weiss — who give their own ages as 435 months and 391 months, respectively — seem up for it. In fact, to their surprise, parenthood hasn’t slowed down their careers as much as they expected.
“We were thinking, when Anna was pregnant, that this was our last time to learn new repertoire,” Weiss says, “because when the baby’s here, we’re just going to play old standards and not practice at all. It hasn’t been like that. We’ve been still exploring new things, and practicing.”
“And cramming,” Polonsky notes.
“Yeah, and cramming,” Weiss acknowledges.
At the festival, that new material will include the world premiere of Derek Bermel’s “Death with Interruptions for Violin, Cello and Piano,” which Polonsky performs July 14 with violinist and SCMS director James Ehnes and cellist Bion Tsang.
Polonsky and Weiss couldn’t keep up their busy schedule if it weren’t for a reliable core of baby-sitters they’ve found in the cities where they perform.
“We have already a list of good baby-sitters in Seattle, baby-sitters in Portland, a wonderful one in Cincinnati, three good ones in upstate New York, and La Jolla,” Weiss explains. “Unfortunately they all get a little older and they go to college, or they do something else, and we have to keep looking.”
“The logistics are a little complicated,” Polonsky concedes. “Nothing that requires a market scientist’s brain. It’s just little pieces that can add up. … Sometimes it’s a little overwhelming. And sometimes it works out so smoothly, you’re afraid of: What have you forgotten?”
Before Polonsky and Weiss got married in 2010, they loomed as potential rivals for each other. Although their paths had crossed at Juilliard, they only became friends in Seattle in 2006.
Weiss recalls former SCMS director Toby Saks enthusing to him, “There’s this amazing pianist coming. Oh my goodness, I heard her play some Mendelssohn. She was like, wow!”
Weiss’ reaction was: “Come on, don’t talk to me about that.”
The immediate thing a pianist feels upon hearing another pianist praised, he says, is jealousy.
Polonsky had a similar experience when she and Weiss were both auditioning for the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society’s CMS Two, a competitive three-season residency for young chamber artists, giving them an opportunity to immerse themselves in all aspects of CMS’ activities.
Her adviser, Ida Kavafian, told her she’d better step up her practicing because she was facing major competition from some fellow named Orion Weiss.
“We both had to hear that about each other first,” Weiss says. “So the easiest way to conquer each other is to just start dating, I guess.”
“Marriage is the best revenge,” Polonsky confirms.
“Then you can root for the other person instead of being jealous,” Orion concludes.
Both started playing piano when very young. Polonsky, who was born in Moscow, could read music before she could read words. When she moved with her family to Ohio at age 12, she’d had what she calls some “lopsided” English language lessons. She could conjugate irregular verbs (“swim, swam, swum … eat, ate, eaten,” she recites) but didn’t know the word for “Hi.”
Weiss, who seems to have picked up a smidgen of his wife’s light Russian accent, started piano lessons before he was 3, using the Suzuki method.
Apart from the challenges of touring with a young child, are there other pitfalls for two concert pianists living together? What if, for instance, there’s a particularly sticky jar lid to open?
“I run it under hot water,” Polonsky wisecracks, “and give it to Orion.”
“I have to be more careful,” he says, acknowledging the problem.
“Orion does, like, pullups and things. He doesn’t care!”
“I don’t do pullups anymore!” he protests.
Let’s hope, for his fingers’ sake, that’s true.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org