Orion Weiss makes his Tucson Symphony Orchestra debut this weekend. It's his first Tucson concert since he played a recital with the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music in 2004.


Sometimes big surprises come in small packages.

Want proof? Check out the Tucson Symphony Orchestra Sunday afternoon at Tucson Music Hall. In the first six minutes of the concert, the orchestra’s string players will unwrap the biggest surprise of the concert — the six-minute work “Ascending Bird.”

The TSO is among only a few orchestras nationwide to perform the work since the YouTube Symphony Orchestra premiered it in Australia in spring 2011. But if their inspired performance, guided by Conductor George Hanson, is any indication, expect to hear more orchestras perform it.

“Ascending Bird” was written by American composer Colin Jacobsen and Iranian composer Siamak Aghaei, colleagues in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. They based it on an Iranian folk song about a mythical bird on a spiritual journey. It has rich Iranian accents and a sense of hope and optimism. It’s not mushy in sentimentality, but breathes with a sense of optimism and hope that sweeps in and gives you a big hug just when you need it.

   The TSO followed the YouTube orchestra’s lead and performed the piece standing up. The only person sitting was longtime TSO principal percussionist Homero Cerón, who alternated between beating on congo-like drum heads mounted to Southwest-style tall pots and a bamboo-box-like percussion instrument that he stroked and tapped to create the strong Iranian accents.

The piece puts the spotlight on a trio of soloists — acting concertmaster Carla Ecker, violinist Emma Noël Votapek and assistant principal cellist Mary Beth Tyndall — who carried the melody and set up the harmony from the string section. All three were outstanding.

The performance earned the orchestra a loud, prolonged thank-you applause from the audience of about 1,700.

“Ascending Bird” was the opening work on a program that included Tchaikovsky’s arresting Concerto No. 1 with rising pianist Orion Weiss and Stravinsky’s “Petrushka,” a brilliantly funky ballet about puppets that come to life. (Thank you maestro for the pre-performance show-and-hear lecture. Without it, I’m not sure we would have gotten as much from the piece.)

Weiss, in his TSO debut, showed off a commanding passion and technical prowess that seemed to come as second nature. His hands danced ballet-like over the ivories, creating lush soundscapes that gave way to frenetic firestorms in Tchaikovsky’s more exuberant passages. During those, his hands became a blur, racing up and down the keys at lightning speed to create a sound that was just as crystal clear as his more deliberate playing.

Not surprisingly, the audience gave Weiss a thunderous, prolonged standing ovation that seemed to take the young pianist by surprise. On the last of his three bows, Weiss smiled nervously as if he couldn’t believe all that commotion was for him.

The concert repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday at Tucson Music Hall. Click here for tickets and more information.