When people recall the first time they met Greg Theisen, they mention noticing two things: First, his piano playing. Second, his kindness.
“I just marveled at how talented this guy was,” said David Livingston, who worked alongside Theisen as music director at Nativity Lutheran Church in St. Anthony. “And yet he was so friendly.”
A fixture in the Twin Cities music and theater scene for decades, Theisen was a passionate and accomplished pianist, composer and educator whose musical interests ranged from Dave Brubeck to Chopin to Stephen Sondheim. Those who knew him say he was also a gentle spirit grounded in meditation and a passion for social justice, and a dedicated friend, husband and father.
Following a long illness, Theisen died Sept. 11. He was 63.
Gregory Theisen was born Sept. 16, 1956, and grew up in St. Cloud, Minn. He was born with kidney problems that doctors said he wouldn’t survive — they told his parents he had a year to live.
But his parents didn’t buy it, said Greg’s wife, Akiko. They took their son to the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota, and he underwent an experimental surgery. Doctors extended his life expectancy to age 5.
“He kept just extending that record,” Akiko Theisen said. “He’s a fighter.”
Greg Theisen started playing music as a small child, after piecing together a melody by ear at his grandmother’s piano. He studied composition and jazz at the University of North Texas and made his way back to Minnesota, his wife said.
The two crossed paths three times before becoming a couple, she said: First, when he played piano at the church she attended; then at a meditation workshop; and finally at a mutual friend’s barbecue. They married in 1997 and later had a daughter.
Greg was a sweet, funny and kind father, Akiko said, and a deeply considerate husband. One morning, after she had a tough day at work, she woke up to find he had placed Post-it notes all over the house — the bathroom mirror, the refrigerator, kitchen cabinets, tables, walls, doors — with words of encouragement for her.
Friends and colleagues remember the same thoughtfulness. Greg Keel, who teaches clarinet, flute and saxophone at MacPhail Center for Music, said a few years ago he found a piece of music with his name on it in his mailbox — a song Theisen had written for him, with a melody intended for tenor saxophone. They meant to record it, Keel said, but never did.
Near the end of Theisen’s life, “We were all kind of rooting for a miracle,” Livingston said. “He wished he had more time. He had so much more he wanted to do.”
Something he did complete, though there were moments when he thought he wouldn’t have time to, was a three-part piece for two of his pianist colleagues to perform as a duo — “A Tale of Three Cities” honoring Istanbul, Lisbon and Minneapolis.
At the end of 2018, the duo planned to premiere the first two movements — which corresponded with their respective home countries of Turkey and Portugal — as a surprise for Theisen, said Pinar Basgoze, one of the two pianists. But his health was declining, and they weren’t sure he would make it to the concert.
They put the piece in the program anyway, Basgoze said. And when they stood to take a bow, they looked up and saw Theisen in the audience.
“He came,” she said. “It was a moment that will be engraved in our minds, I think, forever.”
Theisen is survived by his wife, Akiko; and daughter, Ayaka; father, Wally, and four siblings. Services will be held at a later date.