Sometimes, when you ask a sincere musical question, the Universe finds a quick, dramatic way to answer. After recently experiencing yet another incredible Hollywood Bowl classical piano concerto, I wondered out loud, “Why do all the greatest featured piano soloists hail from places like Russia, China, Japan, France—anywhere but the U.S?" Then, a few days later, invited to an intimate yet invigorating performance at Hollywood Piano in Burbank, I received my emphatic response from the Universe: you just need to see and hear epic cinematic pianist Jennifer Thomas (from Seattle) in action!
In addition to being a YouTube sensation with 24K subscribers and hundreds of thousands of views for over 90 gorgeously-produced videos, Thomas—classically trained at Brigham Young University—is a multi-award winning Yamaha artist whose latest and sixth album, The Fire Within debuted at #3 on the Billboard Classical music chart and #2 on their Classical Crossover chart. Her well-attended appearance in Hollywood Piano’s intimate Irwin & Rhoda Treibitz Performance Hall was part of a 20-date tour of the Western U.S. celebrating this album, whose sweeping compositions and passionate performances illuminate an underlying message of overcoming personal struggles and ultimately transcending the doubters and negativity and embracing self-acceptance.
With its elegant Mason & Hamlin grand piano in the front of the room and exquisite acoustics, this performance space is ideally suited for solo piano performance. The challenge for Thomas and her support crew was to translate the bold, intense, fully-orchestrated grandeur of her recordings to a live experience. She achieved that both elegantly and forcefully with the help of strongly produced pre-recorded (but still live-sounding) accompanying tracks and the multi-media effect of a video screen to the left of her piano bench. If you want to see Thomas play with an orchestra, there are some amazing YouTube clips to check out. But for this show in Burbank, it was fun to close our eyes and imagine one behind her, sweeping her along with graceful gushes of wind as she blended eloquent intimacy with percussive pounding and lush chordal gestures and eye and ear-popping runs.
When a performance starts with a video of a burning piano and dramatic scenery, you know it’s not going to be business as usual—and from start to finish, it never was. As Thomas explained, “These are my fight songs. This music is the fire within me.” On the perfectly titled opening tune “Ascension,” she combined her best pop and classical instincts with almost rock-like symphonic energy to illustrate her personal rise. While keeping the tracks running, she broke in the middle of the tune to showcase her equally impressive violin skills, to poignant effect. One of the best examples of the way she fused live piano performance with pre-recorded music came on the dreamy, ethereal “Soaring,” which included the angelic vocal strains of Eurielle.
The emotional core of the show was the back-to-back self-empowerment statements, “Rise of the Phoenix” and “Girl in the Mirror.” The first of these blended elegant, whimsical musings with visceral tribal percussion, using music to dramatize one’s emergence from the ashes and shame of the past into a bright soaring new day and life. She introduced “Girl in the Mirror” with a heartfelt poem which included the words “beautiful,” “triumphant,” “capable” and “she is enough”—inspiring sentiments she then put to music with energetic, defiant flourishes and a gentle melody featuring the recorded flute of Rose Johnson. The song’s dynamics reflected the tension between struggle and acceptance magnificently.
The set also included selections from previous works including the alternately introspective and powerful “Release” (from the 10th Anniversary Edition of Key of Sea) and the soaring power ballad “Eventide” featuring violinist Kelley Marie Johnson. She used the full power of her audiovisual presentation on another track from Illumination, “Requiem for a Dream,” matching her gentle meditations and explosive power-pop expressions with images of a ballerina’s graceful and high energy movements. As imaginative and adventurous a composer as she is, Thomas is also a keen interpreter of the works of other masters. One of the nicest surprises on The Fire Within is her hypnotic, haunting interpretation of Hans Zimmer’s “Time” from the film Inception. Her live rendering of the piece was pure soul and sensuality.