Around the Island

Two musicians, one piano: Marital musical therapy, an appreciation

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Orion Weiss and Anna Polonsky making music at the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church on September 3.
BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Orion Weiss and Anna Polonsky making music at the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church on September 3.


What can be better than listening to two virtuoso musicians performing together on the same piano at the same time?

Watching them.

I had never seen a performance of piano four hands until attending the Shelter Island Friends of Music Labor Day weekend concert by Orion Weiss and Anna Polonsky. If I hadn’t known that they were married, looking at their faces from across the piano as they worked the keys I would have concluded something was definitely going on between them. The quick stolen looks, the intimate smiles punctuating steely head-on concentration, the whispered secret jokes, the shared rapture. It was like they were singing together (actually, his lips were constantly moving and it was she, I think, who hummed).

While watching them from over the piano, I could not see their hands, but I could hear the number of distinct musical voices emanating from the Baldwin. Sometimes it sounded like one performer with 20 fingers, sometimes like four players with one hand each, sometimes two people, two hands, one singular musical idea. The music -— from Schubert to Brahms, Brahms, and Barber — was familiar to me, though I never realized these were four-handed compositions.

My eyes were glued on them as the music galloped, tangoed, two-stepped, and trotted along, and I found myself imagining I was watching two people in intense concentration holding the reins racing along in a buckboard- — giddyup, giddyup — working in tandem to escape the bad guys chasing them. And then their intense expressions reminded me of something more prosaic: a couple competing in a video game, brows knitted in determination. Which made perfect sense to me when, later, Weiss told me that piano four hands — of which it turns out there’s a vast repertoire, much of it from the 19th century — was largely composed for at-home entertainment. Of course, this was before video games, split-screen TV, texting to one another across the living room. Something for two young-marrieds of similar skill to do together to pass the time.

Watching them from the keyboard side of the piano gives another astonishing impression: elbows jumping out of the way of one another, hands reaching over one another’s to play the exact same note, his leg reaching over hers, or hers over his, to play the pedals. Well, they didn’t bang into each other or fall off the bench (benches, actually: she sat on the tufted solo seat, he squinched on the short end of wooden bench turned sideways — “that’s part of our shtick,” Weiss told the audience.) All in all, a mastery of musical and marital communication.

There is, by the way, a very limited repertoire for piano six hands. This may come in handy when the couple’s 4-year-old daughter takes to the keyboard for a little family therapy.