“When I walk into Dock Street, my heart beats a little quicker,” says pianist Robert Blocker. “There’s something very special about that. That’s a contributing factor when you sit down and think, ‘My God, what a great privilege I have had to be at this place at different points in my life.'”
That’s a significant statement coming from someone who’s regularly asked to play with top orchestras around the world, but the Dock Street has a special place in Blocker’s heart. The acclaimed musician and arts advocate was just 15 years old when he made his orchestral debut at the historic theater in the 1960s. Having played piano since he was 5, the then-teenager was more than ready to lead a concert with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. He played Beethoven’s C Major Concerto.
“That first time when you sit at a piano in a hall with an orchestra is very special. I still remember the butterflies and how strange I felt wearing tails, because back then everybody wore tails, and, of course, it was essential for me to do that,” Blocker says. “It was one of the memorable and wonderful experiences in my life.”
The pianist returns to the Dock Street this weekend for his first pairing with CSO musicians since his public debut. He’s come a long way since then. Besides earning international acclaim as a pianist, he’s parlayed his passion for music into a career as an arts administrator, educator, consultant, and advocate. His resumé is daunting, with leadership positions at major institutions across the country. To name just a few, he helped establish the ArtsCorp program at UCLA, the Hispanica Friends Pro Musica at the University of North Texas, and the Cultural Olympiad in collaboration with the Central Conservatory of Beijing, where he’s an honorary professor. For over a decade, he’s served as dean of music at Yale University.
But Blocker came from humble beginnings. He refers to the late Louise Mathis as a huge influence — the Ashley Hall teacher taught him piano from the age of 5 until college.
“I think the gift that Miss Mathis gave me, that was without a doubt the most important gift a teacher could give someone, was a deep and abiding love for music, a great passion for music, and I never lost that,” Blocker says. “I certainly was not focused in a very narrow way on the fact that I’m going to be a pianist.”
He also credits renowned pianist Richard Cass, who passed away last year, as a seminal influence. Both teachers encouraged him to compete against himself and his own talent as opposed to others.
“That’s really all you can do,” Blocker says. “I’ve tried to build that kind of community at every school I’ve been at, and I’m happy to say that Yale really does work that way.”
Besides helping to create a more friendly learning environment at the prestigious school, Blocker has been credited with increasing minority enrollment, achieving salary equity among senior female staff members, and raising the school’s endowment by more than $300 million. He just seems to have a magic touch. He even has ideas for symphonies like the CSO that are adjusting to a new generation of listeners.
“I think that we have to look at this as an opportunity, and for people in my generation, what we’re hoping to do is assist in the transition because clearly it’s a transition that is a facet of moving into the broader highway of the information age,” Blocker says. “I think it’s important that we facilitate that transition rather than become obstructive. It does not serve art and the discipline well if we say, ‘Well, we don’t have the budget, then we can’t produce a season, then we might as well turn the lights off and go.'”
Blocker sees Saturday’s concert as a chance to support the CSO as they work to get back on their feet. He will perform one of his favorite pieces, Mozart’s Concerto for Piano, No. 23, K488 A major.
“The outer movements of this piece are very sunny,” he says. “The second movement is the only time in all of the piano concerti that Mozart composed that he uses the key of F sharp minor. It is incredibly beautiful but mournful. … I’ve never heard anyone say anything less than, ‘This is one of the most beautiful pieces of music.’ So to play it with the CSO at Dock Street I hope is going to be an incredible experience for all of us.”