Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Interviews

Two Interviews with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, 2006 and 2011

Column for the Conta Costa Times and other papers of the Bay Area News Group, appearing January 21, 2011, under headline,
Classical Music: Thibaubet gives a lift to legacy of Liszt in Berkeley recital.

For those of us who like our piano music strong and muscular but still packed with poetry and passion, there hardly could be a better choice than French virtuoso Jean-Yves Thibaudet's upcoming all-Liszt program at 8 p.m. Jan. 26 at Zellerbach Hall on the University of California campus in Berkeley.

Youthful-looking Thibaudet, 50, who resembles either a leading man in a romantic French movie or 19th-century heartthrob Liszt with a modern haircut, feels a strong affinity for the composer's music. Like Liszt, Thibaudet brings a dashing physical presence to his concert appearances.

In Europe at the time of this writing, Thibaudet communicated by e-mail about his upcoming recital.

"I'm thrilled to make a special tribute to Franz Liszt this year, the 200th anniversary of his birth," Thibaudet writes. "Known in his time as the Paganini of the piano, Liszt took the level of technique at the piano to a new height, one that is still very hard to top."

Thibaudet also noted that Liszt likely would be quite at ease in our modern world. He was very flexible with the business side of music and was committed to championing his colleagues' music, often performing it in his own concerts. Liszt was also one of the most successful composers to write and perform piano transcriptions of symphonic or operatic works, including all the Beethoven symphonies and Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, a work Thibaudet will perform at his Zellerbach concert.

According to Thibaudet, the only way most 19th-century folks could hear music by different composers was in a salon or a gathering at someone's home during which a pianist might perform a Liszt transcription of some great work. In addition to the Wagner transcription, Thibaudet also will perform Liszt's tribute to Chopin from his Meine Freuden.

"This piece, rather than being a transcription of a specific Chopin work, is more of a paraphrase," Thibaudet notes. "It is a charming piece that I'm very fond of. Most people don't know of the existence of this piece. In this all-Liszt recital, I tried to find and program pieces that show the many different characters in Liszt's writing, which are amazing. He went through a lot of different periods of writing in his life. This particular piece will be like a little candy at the beginning of the second half of this recital."

Among other works on the program will be the gorgeous but technically daunting Les jeux d'eaux a la Villa d'Este, which Thibaudet said was a vivid inspiration for Debussy and the impressionist composers of the next generation. He also will play from his Consolations, his Legendes, the Ballade No. 2 and the Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli, all of which are dazzlers.

Thibaudet considers Liszt an underrated composer. "He is deep and serious. He changed the way music is written for the piano," he writes. "I hope my recital will somehow show he is not only a fast showman -- he did have a talent like none other -- but that underneath he was a poetic and deep composer. If a Liszt renaissance is needed, I'm definitely part of this committee!"

Column for the ANG Newspapers run October 20, 2006 under headline,
For Thibaudet, music is played in the key of life.

Remember that old saying, "There are basically two kinds of people — those who describe a half-glass of water as half full, and those who describe the same glass as half empty?" After a most amiable chat with the dashing piano wizard Jean-Yves Thibaudet in his Davies Hall dressing room last Monday, I propose there is yet another sort of person in this world, one for whom the figurative glass is neither half-full nor half-empty, but unabashedly brimming over.

The youthful-looking Thibaudet, who resembles a leading man in a romantic French movie or the 19th-century heartthrob pianist Franz Liszt with a modern haircut, had just completed a rehearsal of the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 2 with Semyon Bychkov in an adjacent room. After listening to a few minutes worth of lightning-fast virtuoso passages of piano music thundering from the room next door, I expected to be greeted by an exhausted, perhaps even panting, musician showing the wear and tear of a marathon runner after bursting across the finish line. But no, the fellow bounding in, although he had beads of perspiration glistening on his brow, was energetic and even invigorated from his just-completed workout.

"That sounded like hard work," I commented, nodding in the direction of the room from which the storm of piano passages had come.

"Yes," he said with an endearingly Gallic shrug, "but I love it. Playing the piano for me is a most sensual experience."

He explained, in a rapid, animated tempo, that when the audience is added to the experience, the circle of communication is complete. Music, he stressed, is about sharing one's self — and life itself — with other people, with one's audience.

This, he said, was a reflection of the sage advice given him during a 15-minute conversation he had as a young prodigy with his idol, pianist Artur Rubenstein, during which Rubenstein extolled the importance of pleasing one's audience — before even the critics.

Jean-Yves was born in 1961 in the French city of Lyon to a German-born mother and French father, both of whom, although musical, were academics. In addition to multiple diplomatic duties, his father taught history and geography at the University of Lyon and was a good amateur violinist.

His mother taught German language and literature at the university, and was an accomplished pianist. She was Jean-Yves' first piano teacher. She did her job well. At age 9, her young son played Ravel's dauntingly difficult and sophisticated "Concerto in G" with the local orchestra. At 12 he graduated with the gold medal from the Conservatory of Lyon. At 15 he won the premier Prix du Conservatoire.

"But this was when my father stepped in," Thibaudet explained. "I remember him taking me to speak with the people at the Conservatory where he told them that he wanted me to have a well-rounded and happy life. He felt that, even if I were to pursue a career in piano, I should still continue with a full academic curriculum."

His father died when Thibaubet was 19.

"But, I will always be grateful for his insistence about my receiving a broad education," he said. "As a result, I have a great love for literature, languages, art, history, film, and a broad range of other things, in addition to music."

His older sister speaks seven languages and works as an executive with the World Health Organization. But, he happily noted that he speaks four languages and could therefore read his favorite works — Dante's "Inferno," Rainer Maria Rilke's poetry and Shakespeare's plays and poetry — in their original languages.

"But, the book which most deeply affected my life was The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Somehow, it captures the innocence, the wonder, and the openness of what life should be. I love how the Little Prince is able to discover so much about life within his love for the rose," Thibaudet said with shining eyes.

With both his father and mother's blessings, he continued at the Paris Conservatoire where he studied with Lucille Descaves, who was a student of Faure and Ravel. Later he studied with Reine Gianoli, a student of the legendary Artur Schnabel, and finally, with Aldo Ciccolini.

He won the top prizes in Italy's Viotti International and Busoni International piano competitions as well as the Robert Casadesus International Competition in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1980, he swept up the International Piano Competition in Japan and in 1981, the Young Concert Artists International Auditions in New York. His career soon escalated into full swing with concert tours and engagements throughout the world.

I asked him about what some writers were beginning to call a "Thibaudet sound."

"I'm not sure what they mean by that — unless it refers to my eclecticism," he said. "I've loved jazz ever since I first heard it on the radio. Right from the beginning, it seemed to me to me to be just music — just as classical is.

"I've also had fun doing CDs with jazz master Bill Evans and I like playing Duke Ellington's compositions. I also love doing chamber music," adding that he has played and recorded with violinists Joshua Bell and Julia Fischer and cellists Truls Mork and Daniel Mueller-Schott, among others.

Another favorite activity is accompanying world-renown opera singers, a task not usually enjoyed by major concert pianists. Perhaps it's from his love for opera that he has assimilated his remarkable ability in playing legato and making long melodic phrases seem to sing. He also acknowledged his love for films and film music.

"I was elated when the great director, Jane Campion, contacted me to play some Schubert pieces as background for her film Portrait of a Lady. She was brilliant," he exclaimed. "And it was hard work — sometimes we did 50 takes to get the precise match of a particular segment of music to the onscreen action!"

Another Thibaudet thrill was working with Academy Award-nominated composer Dario Marianelli and director Joe Wright to perform the accompanying music for the latest movie version of Jane Austin's Pride & Prejudice.

He seldom turns down a request to teach master classes and often involves himself in charity causes.

So why do some Web sites about him rave that "joie de vivre" is what Jean-Yves is all about?"

Grinning broadly, he said, "Every morning when I wake up I feel a sense of joy and optimism because I'm doing exactly what I love — and I get paid for it!"

Jean-Yves Thibaudet with Warner and Cheryl North backstage at Davies Hall, after the performance of the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 2 by Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the San Francisco Symphony on October 18, 2006