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15 Questions to Robert Thies

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I’m doing great. I live outside of Los Angeles, California.

What’s on your schedule right now?
I just finished a recording of Prokofiev’s Ten Dances from Romeo and Juliet for a Yamaha Disclavier release. Over the past Spring season, I performed a Hindemith Concerto, the Schubert Fantasy with British pianist, Howard Shelley, and four performances of the Brahms D minor Concerto in Naples, Florida. In a few weeks, I’ll go back to the AIMS Festival in Graz, Austria, where, for 5 weeks, I will be coaching young singers in German art song.

If you hadn’t chosen for music, what do you think you would do right now?
It’s hard to say, as it’s difficult to imagine a life outside of music. I imagine I would be working either in education or in some ways with children. When I was younger, I joked that I would be a forest ranger, because I love the mountains so much, and nature in general.

What or who was your biggest influence as an artist?

This is another difficult question, as there are so many influences. My own father, an amateur jazz musician, introduced me to pop and jazz styles of music, and so that has opened a world of possibility to me to complement my life in classical music. I remember hearing Beethoven’s Symphonies for the first time when I was about 12 years old, and I was just sitting in my house, paralyzed by the beauty and power of this music. Outside the many influences within classical music, I have been very influenced by the music of diverse artists like Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays, Dave Grusin, Vangelis, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Mark Isham, and Paul Winter. All of this music inspires me whether I’m playing classical music or another genre.

What’s the hardest part about being a musician and what’s the best?

I think the hardest thing about being a musician is that music seems undervalued by many people, at the expense of pop culture, materialism, and ego. I realize Los Angeles is a city of opportunity in the arts, but it is still overshadowed by Hollywood and its questionable values. Sadly thru mass media, these “values” are dispersed nationally, and even internationally.

The best thing about being a musician is that it is a highly ideal lifestyle, immersing oneself in an art form, and something that is so spiritually gratifying on a personal level. It brings me much personal fulfillment to share my discoveries and my love of music with others willing to share in it with me. And music, like other artforms, is one of the few media that extends beyond national boundaries and reach the hearts, minds, and souls of peoples across the globe.

Another wonderful thing is that music has an infinite realm of possibility. Good music is good in any genre, and more and more artists and composers realize this as they look beyond their comfort zone, and find inspiration across genres.

What’s your view on the classical music scene at present? Is there a crisis?

As far as I can tell, there are more musicians and more talented musicians out there then ever before. Therefore, the competition to achieve and maintain a career in music is very high. So, with regard to training new musicians, and furthering the existence of the artform, the conservatories and the private teachers are doing very well. The problem or “crisis” in the  educational system is the failure at introducing music and art to the children as a regular part of the curriculum. There will never be a lack of musicians ready to cross the stage. The problem or “crisis”, as I see it, is in cultivating and maintaining an audience for those performers.

Some feel there is no need to record classical music any more, that it’s all been done before. What do you tell them?
The idea of artistry and offering something new to the artform will never diminish. If this were true, composers should have thrown in the towel after Beethoven composed his 9th Symphony. And they could have thrown in the towel after Wagner wrote “The Ring”. The explosion of styles in the 20th century proved that music had just barely been explored up to that time.

The same goes with individual performers and ensembles. It’s true that with current technology, we have thousands of  “flawless” recordings of the Beethoven Sonatas and Symphonies available to us, and one might wonder what else there is to offer to that music. What I’d like to see more of are live recordings of performances. Everyone knows that what happens in live performance cannot be reproduced alone in a studio. I would love to hear some wrong notes in exchange for adrenalin and electricity. In so many ways, studio recordings only capture a fraction of what the music could and should really be.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?
I think a “good” live performance is one that is honest. When I go onstage, I do the equivalent of taking my clothes off. It’s way beyond playing a composer’s music to the best of my abilities and understanding --- it’s about connecting to the music so profoundly, that it becomes an outlet for honest, unadulterated  self-expression. What I admire so much about a classical artist like Martha Argerich or Nadja Salerno Sonneberg, or even a pop artist like Björk is this: whether or not you like every thing they do or agree with every musical decision they make, you can’t help but be amazed by their conviction and honesty for what they do. As a result they have a strong musical personality and draw the attention (and envy) of so many aspiring musicians.

What does the word “interpretation” mean to you?

Interpretation is both inevitable and critical to any performance of a piece of music. How one interprets music varies according to the musician’s involvement and understanding of the composer, as well as the amount of curiosity the musician has in really knowing a composer’s style. I don’t like to perform a composer’s work unless I feel a connection to it. This idea of “connection” is critical in one’s interpretation, in order to share the music with others and convince them of the piece.

True or false: It is the duty of an artist to put his personal emotions into the music he plays.

Based on what I’ve already said, naturally I find this statement to be true. The mistake of some inexperienced performers is to artificially infuse something into the piece that they don’t feel themselves with total conviction. If one has to do this, then they shouldn’t be performing that music. The process should be one that occurs naturally.

True or false: “Music is my first love”

I’d love to be a romantic, and say that my first love was that French girl I met when I was 14 years old, but indeed that experience came after my affair and love for music had already begun.

True or false: People need to be educated about classical music, before they can really appreciate it.
Well, I appreciate many things in the world without having much formal education or understanding for them. And I like to think that there’s a  particular “beauty” to keeping a certain naivete and awe about some things without knowing why they are beautiful or important. I realize that any intellectual would disagree with my attitude. But part of the mystery of life for me is wondering in awe about the beauty and majesty of the world’s great wonders, architectural and artistic feats. I like to stare up at the stars and think that we are not alone, or imagine a greater meaning to our lives.

This being said, of course the more one delves into a certain realm, the more one gains from it. Certainly it’s not fair to expect an audience to capture from a piece in one hearing what I spent months or years studying and admiring. And like I said earlier, I think the educational system needs to make the study of art and music part of the curriculum alongside math and science. The audience for classical music could be so much bigger if people were exposed to it when they were younger--- to realize that there is so much to enjoy and discover in this music.

You are given the position of artistic director of a concert hall. What would be on your program for this season?
I would program a mix of the greatest works of centuries past alongside the masterful discoveries of living composers.  Most people shy away from “modern music” the way they shy away from anything that is unknown, unchartered territory. It’s funny today to read disparaging reviews of premieres of Beethoven’s Symphonies or other great composer’s works. There is so much to gain from listening to today’s composers and appreciating them while they are alive to talk about their music.

What’s your favourite classical CD at the moment?

I don’t really have any favorite CDs. My favorite will be whatever I’ve just discovered. So, if it’s an old recording that I just acquired, I can value that as much as a brand new CD of a new artist or composer. So, for me, the better question might be: what classical CD have you just discovered that you really like? I really like Arvo Pärt’s “Te Deum”, Golijov’s Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” and I recently heard a Kuijken recording of the Telemann Paris Quartets that I really admire.

Have you ever tried playing a different instrument? If yes, how good were you at it?
When I was about 10 years old, I tried to play the alto saxophone, and played it in a school band or orchestra. I remember playing an arrangement of Haydn’s Surprise Symphony. I think my father summed up the experience well when he said, “Yea, I think it was good you stuck to the piano.”

Live in Recital

Robert Thies

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