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Interview : Piano Virtuoso Robert Thies

Robert Thies at Piano

While posting for my art and piano school on Facebook, I sometimes indulge in the pleasure of reading friendly banter on posts by my musician friends. One clever retort from a Robert Thies caught my attention. Not knowing who he was, I clicked on his FB page and was delighted to learn he is an award-winning virtuoso pianist. I’m a little embarrassed not to have known this, but with running an art and piano school full time, it is challenging to stay current on musicians unless they are already on my radar through my professional teaching organizations, so I am sort of excusing myself this one time…

To earn back some self-respect, I decided to attend his solo concert on Sunday, April 21, 2019, at the South Pasadena Public Library. His performances of Schumann’s Fantasie in C Major, Opus 17, Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Opus 52, Debussy’s Hommage á Rameau from Images, Book 1, Peter Schwartz’ Farewell, Red Square (world premiere), and Rachmaninoff’s Etude in G minor, Opus 33, no. 8, Prelude in G Major, Opus 32 no, 5 and Prelude in G minor, Opus 23 no. 5 were outstanding, receiving a standing ovation and another for his encore performance. Robert graciously introduced composer Peter Schwartz who received a standing ovation for his composition.

I had the privilege of saying hello at the post-concert meet and greet and found Robert to be warm and welcoming. In a FB PM the next day, I asked if he might consider an interview for my school’s blog. I was so glad he accepted. I’m pleased to introduce my students and readers to piano virtuoso, Robert Thies.

Q1. As a fine art teacher who also teaches piano, I enjoy making a connection between art and music. What is your style of playing referred to? For my piano students, would you please describe what this style means or represents? From where do you draw your inspiration?

A1. Both my teachers were students of Rosina Lhevinne, the great Russian pedagogue and émigré to the US. So I think it’s safe to say that my training comes from the Russian School of pianism, handed down by an incredible lineage tracing back to Nikolai Rubenstein. Briefly, it relates to using the entire arm and body for tone production, while developing a strong technical foundation.

I draw inspiration from many places:
• the beauty of nature
• humankind’s greatest achievements and greatest displays of humanity towards each other and other species
• Other art forms: painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry
• Understanding the lives of these composers, and feeling awe for the depth of art they produced while struggling just to survive disease or makes ends meet

Q2. Your piano performances and recordings are a mix of solos and collaborations covering the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Contemporary musical eras. What is the story or inspiration behind your choice of composers, compositions and focus on solos, duets, ensembles or symphonies?

A2. I program the music that I connect to. My one criterion for the music I choose is whether it touches my heart. If it does not, then I cannot expect to inspire an audience, and that would make me feel dishonest. This holds true for solo repertoire and for chamber music performances and recording projects too.

 
 

Q3. Which composer or composers are you most passionate about? What is the story behind this?

A3. I connect deeply to many composers, but when I program solo recitals, I tend to be a bit more traditional in my programming. Many pianists would argue that the greatest music written for the piano was done so in the 19th century, and so my programs often have music of composers like Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Schubert. But I also adore Debussy and Ravel and usually include a work by one of them on each program. The other side of my ancestry is Russian, and so I also have a strong connection to the music of Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. And then one cannot ignore the incredible wonder that is Chopin. Arguably no one wrote better for the piano than he. And when I want to experience being an opera singer, I turn to the music of Mozart and Chopin. My love for Mozart’s music blossomed when I finally understood Mozart’s instrumental works are all informed and inspired by his first love: opera. His piano concerti are the closest we come to singing opera. And the same holds true for Chopin, whose primary muse was bel canto opera. Both Mozart and Chopin wrote melody in a manner to emulate the human voice.

I should also note that I have a deep passion for music outside the classical music canon. I have always been passionate about film music, world music, European jazz, and really any music that is heartfelt and sincere. And these various passions feed my love for classical music and vice versa.

Q4. My students are interested in the latest rehearsal trends, tips, and techniques. Do you have a set routine (best days/times)? How long do you usually rehearse to prepare repertoire? How do you prepare before a concert?

A4. My practice regimen has evolved as I’ve gotten older. In general, I would encourage younger students to practice a focused 2-3 hours every day. I try to do that myself, but much depends on what concerts lie ahead of me. One does the work that needs to be done, and occasionally I might practice up to five hours with breaks. But that is a very intense day of work, taxing on the body and the brain, and difficult to maintain.
Also, the amount of time I need to memorize a solo piano work might take me a few months versus taking a few weeks to prepare a chamber work to be played from score.

The famous Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter started performing works from score in his later years, and he says he did this because there was too much music he wanted to play, and putting music to memory took too much time. Indeed, I have noticed that as I have gotten older, memorizing music has taken more time, and this does impact the amount of new music I can learn.

In general, the tradition of playing recitals from memory is something I support because when we put a piece to memory, we can really get inside the music better. We play better too because when we aren’t using our eyes to perform, we can focus on listening. Music is an aural art, after all.

Q5. At what age did you realize you were a musical spirit?

A5. I knew by age 16-17 that I wanted to pursue a life in music. It grabbed me and didn’t let go. And so in spite of the challenges of making a career in music, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Q6. Did anyone try to talk you out of fulfilling your dream as a musician? If so, how did you handle it?

A6. I don’t recall anyone ever trying to talk me out of making a life in music. My parents were very supportive of me in pursuing my dreams both emotionally and financially. I only remember one moment when my father expressed concern that I might be too “nice” to make a living in an industry populated by many who may not have the best intentions. I have always been idealistic when it comes to my music-making, and one of the challenges for me is never to lose those ideals in a society which, on the whole, doesn’t value the arts as much as it should.

Q7. How old were you when you performed your first professional concert? How did you get the gig? Was it through teacher connections or via a professional manager?

A7. I remember giving my first recital when I was 12 years old. It was in the home within a retirement community where my grandparents lived. It was a fundraiser for the City of Hope. So now that I think about it, I wasn’t paid which implies it wasn’t a “professional” concert. I think a more important event was performing the first movement of the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto with a local youth orchestra when I was 16. Again, I wasn’t paid, but the experience helped “seal the deal” down a path of music.

Q8. Do you currently have a manager? If so, what tasks does a manager handle on your behalf?

A8. I do not have a manager. For a brief period I did, but the experience was dissatisfying. If you’re lucky, you will connect with someone who will work for you and try to find you opportunities, but unfortunately, this was not my experience. All the concerts I have performed have been through my own efforts, or through word of mouth. In the case of my concerto engagements, I have had a few individuals in my life who have been incredibly supportive and invited me wherever they conducted.

Q9. Do you also teach or provide Master Classes? If so, what schools or organizations host your presentations?

A9. I teach privately only a few students. As much as I enjoy teaching, I have not been an aggressive recruiter of students. Part of that is I want to keep enough time for my own performance career and projects. In addition, my favorite age group to teach are advanced students who are well along in their development mostly because I love being able to teach repertoire. I get to do a number of masterclasses each year which I find very stimulating and enjoyable. Something unique to masterclasses is that there is no further obligation on the part of the student or teacher once the instruction has concluded. If the student wants to incorporate my ideas, wonderful, but they are not obligated to. I find the atmosphere is conducive to learning and sharing fresh ideas. I also think having an audience present inspires me to talk about broader concepts so that they too can get something from the class. I find it incredibly flattering when I see teachers in the audience taking notes. I have taught masterclasses at local colleges and universities like CSULB, CSUN, UC Irvine, and in cities around the world when I travel for concerts.

I have also done a number of lecture-presentations for teachers of MTAC and MTNA groups. I think it’s wonderful when teachers want to continue to learn and develop.

Q10. Have you composed works of your own? If so, what style are they in? Will you be recording any of them?

A10. I have always had an interest in composition and improvisation. With a good friend of mine, we began casually improvising together, and eventually, we decided to document these improvisations. Within six years, we have released our third album together in a series called Blue Landscapes. The music is of a quiet, reflective nature, and it is entirely improvised which we believe creates an honest dialogue between us. Some people find it to be cinematic, others call it “Mindfulness music”, and some of my friends listen to it when they need to focus or engage in creative writing. The albums are winning Global Music Awards and thanks to modern digital distribution, they are being heard around the world.

I have also written and recorded an album of jazz-inspired compositions for a jazz quartet, and I hope to release that album this year.

In both cases, these side projects of mine are creative outlets for me. They allow me to pursue other musical interests I’ve had all my life. With the jazz-inspired music, I get to write and arrange music and interact with wonderful musicians and friends. And with the Blue Landscapes albums, I am able to stay connected to what made me fall in love with music and the piano so many years.

When I was younger I wrote some small works for different friends, one a cellist, and another a flutist. But in general, I have never sat down to write a sonata, concerto, or serious classical work. Because of this, I don’t feel right calling myself a composer out of respect to my colleagues who do indeed devote their lives to the art. But it is still a dream of mine to write something for piano and orchestra.

Q11. Music can touch people’s lives, bringing happiness and hope. For example, my piano school partners with CoachArt to provide free piano lessons for families impacted by childhood chronic illness. Is there a charity you are fond of or support, that you might like my readers to learn more about?

A11. I have done a number of concerts for various charities, ranging from the City of Hope to organizations like ETMLA who provide exposure to music in inner-city schools. Classical music has traditionally been an art form enjoyed primarily students of Caucasian or Asian backgrounds. If you look at a professional orchestra or a college studio in any of the major conservatories, the vast population of students or orchestral players will fall into these two categories. Private music lessons can be cost-prohibitive for many families of lower income, and so these children get fewer opportunities. Music SHOULD be a part of all schools’ curricula, but unfortunately, our legislators don’t see the value.

Q12. In closing, do you have a favorite quote, mantra or process that you find inspiring or helpful when faced with a creative block, that you would like to share with my readers?

A12. “There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” (Martha Graham)

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To learn more about this visionary pianist, visit his website. To purchase his CDs, visit the Recordings webpage on Robert’s website. His concerts are listed on his Upcoming Concerts webpage. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram and enjoy performances on his YouTube channel.

Were you inspired? Please share your inspiration in the comment section below.
Did you enjoy the interview? Please consider sharing with those who would.
Thank you for your interest and support!

For more on the interviewer, Pastimes for a Lifetime’s founder/instructor Linda Wehrli, visit the website.
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4 Comments

  1. Frank M. Pelteson

    Mr. Thies reveals that he is an eminent, serious, professional musician with a solid basis for his profession. My having been born in Hamburg, Germany, where there is a high culture of the arts and music, I think he ought to consider performing in the new, gigantic Elbphilharmonie. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JDQ2NkHVc8 . It’s just a thought.

    • Linda Wehrli

      Yes, indeed. Thank you for the link. You might enjoy checking out his YouTube channel, which is listed at the bottom of the blog.

  2. Barry Wehrli

    I have yet to see Robert Thies perform, but I look forward to it and have heard wonderful things about him. “Indeed, I have noticed that as I have gotten older, memorizing music has taken more time…” No kidding! LOL

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