Pianist Robert Edward Thies revisits the past
When most children were dreaming of becoming firefighters, doctors and astronauts, 4-year-old Robert Edward Thies was aspiring to be a classical musician.
On Oct. 2, the now 39-year-old distinguished pianist will help kick off the Santa Cruz Symphony’s 2010/2011 season with a concert called “Out of this World,” which will showcase three pieces, two of which inspired him as a young boy.
Thies will play George Gershwin’s jazzy “Rhapsody in Blue,” a composition originally written for the Paul Whiteman Band, which has held a special place in his heart since childhood. While he has been given the opportunity to perform the piece on several occasions throughout his career—this will be the third time this year. To him, it never gets old.
“The fact that this piece regularly appears on symphony orchestras’ season schedules testifies to the fact that it appeals to all musicians and conductors,” Thies says. “The piece clearly draws more from Tin Pan Alley and jazz and blues influences than Western classical music, but with the brilliant orchestration by Ferde Grofe, this piece is well accepted among symphony musicians as a legitimate and fun work to play.”
While Thies is excited to perform the audience favorite, he is particularly looking forward to reuniting with Santa Cruz Symphony Music Director John Larry Granger, who was the first conductor to give him the chance to perform a concerto with an orchestra at age 16.
At the upcoming concert, Granger will lead the symphony in Oscar Lorenzo Fernandez’s “Batuque,” a piece inspired by Brazilian folk music and dance, and Gustav Holst’s otherworldly epic, “The Planets”—one of the first orchestral pieces that Thies ever heard. “The Planets” showcases many compositional styles influenced by Romanticism and Impressionism.
“It is powerful, ethereal, noble and gorgeous,” says Thies of Holst’s work, which at one time motivated him to subscribe to a children’s astronomy magazine. “It had such an immediate and profound impact on me, that for a while I thought that outer space really sounded like this music.”
But rather than follow directly in Gershwin and Holst’s footsteps, Thies has made a name for himself as a pianist through his work with Russian composition. He is currently the only American to win a gold medal in a Russian piano competition since Harvey Van Cliburn’s famed triumph in 1958.
To finish on top at the International Prokofiev Competition in 1995, Thies played what he remembers as 3.5 hours of the most difficult repertoire from memory. While the program list was seemingly endless, the biggest works covered were the Prokofiev “Concerto No. 2,” Prokofiev “6th Sonata” and Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit.”
“Winning the competition on Russian soil was a great honor and one of the greatest moments of my career,” says Thies. “I’ll never forget that moment in my life.”
It was his experience with Russian composition that earned him an invitation to join the Santa Cruz Symphony as a guest pianist in 2000 to perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” and again in 2002 for Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Concerto No. 1.”
As far as the secret to his success, Thies believes it’s all about having fun with composition and letting go of your inhibitions. “Musical language is not to be taken too seriously, or we run into the problem of over-dramatizing the music,” he says. “Audiences respond favorably to it especially if they feel the performers are enjoying themselves.”
Though Thies has made a living as a concert pianist in Los Angeles, playing with various orchestras like the Mexico City Philharmonic, during the year he maintains that his development process as a musician is never-ending.
“I’m still learning how to play,” he says.
“Out of this World” will run Saturday, Oct. 2 at 8 p.m. at the Santa Cruz Civic, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz, and Sunday, Oct. 3 at 2 p.m., at the Mello Center, 250 East Beach St., Watsonville. Tickets are $18-65. For more info, call 420-5260.