96-year-old piano prodigy still wowing crowds

Posted Feb. 26, 2013, at 3:13 p.m.

As soon as he began to play the piano, I understood how 96-year-old Harry Weiss had garnered such local renown after only six years in Maine. In no time flat, Harry makes a lasting impression.

Harry is what some people might call a prodigy on the piano. He was three years old, living in a tenement in New York City, when he heard a man singing in the backyard. Little Harry went to the piano and plunked out the tune. From that time forward, Harry’s relationship with the piano defined much of his life. For one thing, the piano was his ticket out of a pretty rough life.

“I had always been a street kid. We played stick ball, punch ball, box ball; we swam in the East River — my mom would’ve killed me if she knew. There were street fights. You might’ve called me a dead-end kid,” Harry said.

But Harry also snuck out and hung around the doors at Carnegie Hall. Sometimes they’d invite him in to listen to the music. Harry took piano lessons, but he went through several teachers who dropped him. Though he could read music, Harry was more inclined to play by ear than to play by the book. He wanted to improvise. When he was 12, he performed in a student concert and caught the attention of Walter Damrosch, the conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra. Harry remembers the famed conductor telling him, “You play like you know what you’re doing, but you ought to learn how to play.”

To hear his music and watch his arthritic hands fly around the keyboard is dazzling, but Harry says his hands are too small to play a lot of music as it is written. He insists that he is not a pianist. Most listeners would disagree, but one of Harry’s stories illustrates what he means.

Harry attended City College in New York City, where he played the piano constantly. When someone wanted an accompanist for the old film “Intolerance,” people said, “Get Weiss.” They sent Harry to the Museum of Modern Art to borrow the pre-printed score for the film — a complex medley of classical music.

“You gotta be kidding me!” Harry said when he looked at the music. “I couldn’t learn all that in time. So I made up my own music.”

That was the start of Harry’s favorite piano activity. He played in bands, he wrote music, he taught, he worked in clubs, he learned sound engineering, worked as a recording mixer and music editor, and wrote background music for TV and radio commercials out of his self-made basement studio for 30 years. But more than anything, Harry loved to improvise for silent films.

“I never know what I’m gonna play. It could be good or bad,” Harry said.

Harry makes it up as he goes along, responding to the audience’s reactions as the film rolls. He has been doing it for about 70 years and counting, delighting all comers.

As wonderful as Harry’s music is, however, another 70-year commitment in his life is even more heartwarming. Harry’s wife of 71 years, Sylvia, died 14 months ago, but from the moment Harry began telling his story, Sylvia was a constant presence.

“We weren’t just husband and wife, we were friends,” Harry said.

Harry’s face lights up whenever he recounts a memory: Sylvia’s laughter, their crazy spontaneity, how much their grandchildren loved her, her poetry, a rafting trip on the Snake River at age 70, Sylvia’s face in the audience.

“When I played the piano, I’d look at Sylvia. If she was smiling, I knew I was doing okay,” Harry said.

While in the service during World War II, Harry didn’t see Sylvia for three years, but he wrote letters and mailed her recordings of his music on paper record albums.

“They were good for one or two plays,” he said.

When they were in their 80s and living in Florida, it was Sylvia who encouraged Harry to seize a new performance opportunity. Walking into the Delray Beach Public Library, Sylvia exclaimed, “Look! There’s a piano. There’s a screen!”

Harry played there every week for five years before he and Sylvia moved to Maine to be near their son, Paul. In Bangor, Harry sought more opportunities to play, and his reputation spread fast. Silent films don’t come around much, but Harry plays daily for his fellow residents at Boyd Place. He has played for River City Cinema events, at Bangor Public Library, and recently regaled theatergoers on opening night at Penobscot Theatre.

PTC’s managing director recently invited Harry to play for another opening night event at the theater this spring. He was delighted.

Harry is a heartwarming optimist. To be with him and hear him play is to feel the glow of his love for life. Given the chance to engage with music and people, he’ll never turn it down.

However, at age 96, he says, he doesn’t plan ahead.

“If I’m around, I’ll be there,” Harry said.

If he’s around, I’ll be there too.

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at