Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?
I showed a love for music from a very early age, partly fostered by my father, who was an amateur musician himself. At the age of 16, I was studying with a very serious piano teacher, whose own lineage connected him to the Russian School of Pianism that blossomed in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries. He introduced me to some of the most beautiful repertoire to learn: the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto, and Schumann’s Fantasy, Op. 17. These two works along with Ravel’s Piano Concerto and his Gaspard de la Nuit really captured my heart, and it was a point of no return to me. So, it was a combination of inspiring mentors and the greatest creations in Western Art music that pushed me down a path from which I’ve never looked back.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Arguably, the composers and their creations have been the most important influences. But the high standards and values of my teachers have shaped who I am as a musician. I continue to uphold very high standards for myself, to which I always aspire. I treat every performance as though it is my last.
Although classical music is my first love, I take pride in the musical exploration I began as a teenager in finding inspiration in music outside the classical realm. Some of the music that really expanded my horizons included that of artists like: Vangelis, Paul Winter, Mark Isham, the Windham Hill label, ECM label (European jazz), film composers John Williams, James Horner, and Ennio Morricone, jazz artists like Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays, and popular artists Sting and Peter Gabriel. And then there are countless others I failed to list here. My CD collection is vast and is categorized by genre.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
As a concert pianist, I have had tremendously rewarding experiences playing with orchestras around the world and playing recitals in beautiful venues. The greatest challenge has been in maintaining this career and relationships with people and organizations when they are constantly shifting. I could be the “greatest thing since sliced bread” one day, and forgotten a week later.
Also, classical music, jazz, and art on the whole, are vastly underappreciated in American culture. The financial support for the arts on a Federal level is near non-existent, and is therefore dependent on corporate and private funding. As a result, it is difficult to be compensated in a manner which reflects the months or even years of preparation that go into a single performance. Musicians work longer and harder than doctors and lawyers, and yet on the whole, we make but a fraction of what those folks make.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
Performing in Philharmony Hall in St. Petersburg, Russia was a great honor. This room echoes with the past performances of the most gifted performers and composers the world has seen. To take an example, it was where Shostakovich premiered his Leningrad Symphony. However, another very meaningful performance for me was the week after 9/11 when I was flown down to Auckland, New Zealand on a day’s notice to perform two Rachmaninoff Concerti. Before I played an encore of Rachmaninoff’s own favourite prelude, I made a dedication to those heroes of 9/11. It was a very personal moment, and I will always treasure how warmly the audience received me.
Though I have recordings of many of my own performances in my library, some of which I can feel very proud (Brahms Concerti, and Rachmaninoff Concerti), it is my own recordings, a series of albums called Blue Landscapes, with musical partner and friend, Damjan Krajacic of which I am most proud. These albums provide a different kind of creative outlet for me to explore honest musical conversation and improvisation, and shows a very intimate portrait of who I am as a person. The music mostly draws on my interests outside of classical music but with the temperament of someone deeply immersed in the beauty of the rich musical past. The music is quiet, meditative, and I love how it has reached and touched the hearts of people from around the world. That is deeply meaningful for me.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I think I have a special kinship to Brahms above all. There is a visceral joy I get from playing his music which complements the incredible beauty and sheer power of his music. His two Piano Concerti and chamber works are the pieces I think I perform best.
But it is also difficult to choose favorites because I am also very largely drawn to the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Ravel, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I am always trying to expand my repertoire and learn some new works every year. This year I just learned the last in the series of Brahms’ complete chamber works—17 in total — for piano. However, the time required to learn and memorize a new work can involve many months of work, and so I have to weigh my repertoire choices with the time I have available to learn, versus review. In the case of a concerto appearance, often the repertoire is requested of me by the conductor who is planning his own programs.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Playing chamber music or concerti in Disney Hall in Los Angeles is a great thrill acoustically. I remember particularly the joy I experienced playing Beethoven’s Trio in C minor, Op. 1 no. 3 and Mozart’s Quintet for Piano and Winds and just hearing how the instruments carry in that space. But St. Petersburg’s Philharmony Hall and the private recital chamber in The Hermitage Museum built for Catherine the Great remain at the top of my list for the great history they boast.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Performing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic was one of the greatest musical highlights of my life. But this is too difficult a question to answer because various experiences might have brought me joy for different reasons. For example, I love performing in Mexico for the way Mexicans embrace art and culture. I am inspired by how those audiences are full of families with young children who often storm me after a concert seeking my autograph or a photo as though I am a celebrity. It’s really heartwarming.
I’ve played with some wonderful professional orchestras in beautiful halls, and connected with orchestral musicians in the process. I’ve also played with community orchestras and have been moved by the enthusiasm and energy of these amateur musicians. And then on another spectrum, I recall a solo recital 20 years ago out in the middle of Kansas somewhere, when for whatever reason, I felt so completely connected to the piano and the music I was playing, and therefore felt completely “in the zone”. It was a rare moment when I felt like I might have delivered a “near-perfect” performance. But as I had no friends in attendance, I would leave the venue, go back to my motel and turn on the TV just to hear voices, and that musical experience would vanish into thin air as though it never happened at all.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
The definition of success, as a musician, has slightly developed over time. I used to define it as the kind of career that someone like current stars Lang Lang or Yuja Wang, Hilary Hahn, Joshua Bell, are living. I wanted to be invited to perform around the world, make recordings for posterity, and be admired by my colleagues. Nowadays, I still measure success by what respect I have earned from my musical colleagues, but with the changing musical environment of the 21st century, I measure success less by the quantity of concerts that come my way, and more on the quality of the performances and experiences overall. If I can make a living doing what I love to do, and put food on my table and keep a roof over my head, then I feel very successful. I may never get wealthy with my music, but my soul feels enormously enriched.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I think we all need to keep exploring and expanding our horizons and experiences. We need to stop comparing ourselves to others, and think more about challenging ourselves to be the best we can be. As Rachmaninoff said, “Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.”
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Living in a cabin in the high mountains near lakes and streams, with my dog and my wife, a place I can go wandering and hiking every day, communing with the beauty of nature.
What is your most treasured possession?
‘Blue Landscapes’, inspired by the beauty of nature: the forests, the mountains, the lakes, the streams, the sea – even what lies beyond the stars – but always grounded in human emotion, is a creative partnership between pianist Robert Thies and flautist Damjan Krajacic. Blue Landscapes III: Frontiers is available now. More information