Jean-Yves Thibaudet Is Right at Home With the LA Phil

Victoria Looseleaf on September 27, 2019
Jean-Yves Thibaudet | Credit: Andrew Eccles

With a career spanning more than three decades and having recorded some 50-plus albums, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet is still one of today’s most sought-after soloists. Born in Lyon, France, the musician began his piano studies at age 5 and made his first public appearance at age 7. It’s no surprise, then, that he entered the Paris Conservatory at 12, where he studied with Aldo Ciccolini and Lucette Descaves, the latter Ravel’s friend and collaborator.

When he was 15, the gifted pianist won the Premier Prix du Conservatoire and three years later, he triumphed at the Young Concert Artists Auditions in New York City, launching a career that has taken him all over the world. Performing a range of solo, chamber, and orchestral repertoire — from Beethoven through Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, and Saint-Saëns to Ravel, Khachaturian, and Gershwin, Thibaudet opens the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 2019–2020 season with the Concerto in F, Gershwin’s Jazz Age classic, at Walt Disney Concert Hall Oct. 3–6, under the baton of Music Director Gustavo Dudamel.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet | Credit: Andrew Eccles

Fusing poetic musical sensibilities with ravishing technical prowess, 58-year old Thibaudet has forged an indelible identity, with The New York Times declaring, “every note he fashions is a pearl ... the joy, brilliance, and musicality of his performance could not be missed.” A Hollywood Bowl Hall-of-Fame inductee in 2010, Thibaudet was previously a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters, and was awarded the title of Officer by the French Ministry of Culture in 2012.

After his LA Phil performances, Thibaudet heads to Beijing Oct. 14 for the world premiere of Aaron Zigman’s piano concerto, Tango Manos, a work he’ll perform in its U.S. premiere in February with the San Francisco Symphony.

Thibaudet has also been heard — and seen — on film, where the musician had a cameo in Bruce Beresford’s feature on Alma Mahler, Bride of the Wind, with Thibaudet’s playing showcased throughout the soundtrack. In addition, the Frenchman was the soloist on the Oscar- and Golden Globe-award-winning soundtrack to Atonement and the Oscar-nominated film, Pride and Prejudice.

And though he’s on the road a good portion of the year, Thibaudet calls Los Angeles home. I caught up with the fiendishly busy musician by phone from Lincoln, Nebraska, where he was performing Ravel’s Concerto for Piano in G Major, with his colleague and good friend, Stéphane Denève, conducting.

I understand that you learned Gershwin’s Concerto in F and Rhapsody in Blue when you were 13 or 14. How do you approach the Concerto these days and do you ever tire of performing it?

I never get tired of it. In general, I try to keep pieces as fresh as I can. Those pieces are so great, how could I ever get tired of them? What I would love to do is listen to a recording of the first time I played it. I would be interested, because at that age I didn’t know jazz and I must have been playing very strictly. I knew all the notes, but it probably wasn’t much like Gershwin, and now I play it completely differently. I think the jazz idiom is like speaking a language — you can’t perform Gershwin correctly if you don’t know jazz [and] it would be like speaking phonetically a language — people think you understand it, but you really have no clue.

Do you even know how many times you’ve performed the Concerto and under how many different conductors?

I played it so many times in my life and continue playing it. I don’t think there’s a season that I don’t perform it. It’s way over 100 or 200 times and I played it a lot with different conductors in different places with different orchestras. It’s been a big part of my life. I performed the Concerto and Rhapsody in Blue with the New York Philharmonic on PBS, which was live on TV, and New York is a very close link with Gershwin because it was premiered there. I was so proud of that. Ten years ago, we went on tour in Europe with Loren Maazel [and the New York Philharmonic]. I remember feeling so special doing that with them and then lots of other places. There are wonderful, special memories I have with that piece. It’s very festive — a happy piece. Be happy like Gershwin is! We need that in this world now. Come out of the hall with a smile and be uplifted.

I’ll tell you an anecdote about performing Gershwin and being onstage at the Bowl. It was quite a few years ago and it was a Gershwin festival and Leonard Slatkin was conducting. He might have been the principal guest conductor of the Bowl and he asked me, “I’d like you to be the soloist in the Concerto and the Rhapsody.” After the last note on the last evening he looked at me and said, “Now I can say you’re an honorary American.” It touched me so much — to be an honorary American, that was the greatest compliment.

You’ve performed with the LA Phil countless times — both at Disney Hall and at the Bowl. Does opening the LA Phil season with Dudamel hold a special meaning for you and what’s it like working with him?

The LA Phil is probably — I think I can say — it’s the orchestra in the world that I have the closest relationship with now. I’ve been playing with them every season for 20 to 25 years. I live in LA and it made me feel like it’s my home, like I’m almost part of the family. I feel so close to them and have done tours with them. To open the season it’s very, very special. I’m happy to do the Gershwin with Gustavo because it’s the first time we’re doing it together there.

With Gustavo, it’s a privilege enough to perform with him and when that happens it’s inspired. He has so many gifts. He has the gift of communication that makes you just want to give him the best you can give. He has positive, enthusiastic energy in everything he does, and with so much pleasure. When I look at him and he smiles, it’s the most incredible excitement and electricity. All of that is what happens when you play with him, but inspiration is what we’re looking for and what makes every performance so special, every time. Every piece I played with him, I remember the excellence he brings and you want to give him your best.

What is your practice regimen like and how difficult is it playing on different pianos when you’re on the road?

People don’t realize that if you’re at that [concertizing] level, they think you don’t practice. I practice more and more. I love practicing because I discover new things and say to myself, “How could I have never seen it all these years — I played this wrong for 30 years — and nobody told me.” You have to be constantly learning something new — that’s what makes it fresh. To keep in shape, I haven’t found anything better than practicing.

[Regarding] different pianos, I got used to that a long time ago. You have to accept it — the challenge, the limitation — then you live a better life. I’ve become philosophical about it and I might just as well like it. If you want to complain about your piano, you can, but I choose to be happy. I’m a very positive person and I look at the glass half full, instead of half empty. I decided a long time ago, that it’s only one night and if I don’t like the piano, I’ll just pretend I like it. I never heard people coming out of the hall and say, “What a poor pianist, he had a poor piano.” We do the best we can and sometimes it’s challenging but we have to accept it.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet | Credit: Andrew Eccles

You’ve had a number of residencies with, among others, the Orchestre National de France, the Colburn School, and with the St. Louis Symphony and Stéphane Denève, who begins his first season as its music director there this month. How important are residencies to you?

They’re very important at this point in my life. I love to do projects that are just coming for a week and playing two or three concerts. I’ve done it for many years, and now we’ve built a relationship. You also build a relationship with your audience in that city. That’s the point, and I like to bring them different possibilities.

I have one in Lyon that’s different than in St. Louis. I also try to find something specific in the town. In Lyon it’s about chefs, food. I like to include trios, quartets, quintets — do chamber music with them. We have a real experience to be onstage in small groups and we do late-night in a jazz club. It’s cool and different. I like to do that and I only do it in places where there’s a reason to do it — where I’ve been coming for many years and have developed a special relationship with the orchestra.

In St. Louis, it’s organic, because this is Stéphane’s first season. He asked me immediately to the season and we said we’ll make it work one way or the other. I have a residency at the Colburn School — it’s my fifth year in residence there — and I have lots of projects there — teaching, coaching. It gives me more and more pleasure every day.

While concert attire has decidedly been getting more edgy you’ve always been known for your sartorial choices, notably wearing bespoke suits by English fashionista Vivienne Westwood. Is she still your personal couturier?

Absolutely! Vivienne still does my concert attire and she’s an amazing lady. I have more admiration for her every day. She’s a visionary and a great human being who [champions] a lot of causes. I feel very privileged to know her and work with her and her husband. Every time I play in London I see her. She has been a big blessing for me and I’m happy to always have something from her, since fashion is one of the real loves of my life.

I’ve been interested in fashion since I was a little boy [and] remember when I started performing, it was really rare to have a male pianist that was not coming with tails and white tie and everything. Now if you look around, especially the younger generation, I think it’s probably more difficult to find one that does wear that. I think it has changed and I think it should [because] there’s no reason why we should have that old-fashioned traditional dusty, conventional clothes. I think it’s also not good for the young audiences. It makes them bored and it makes us look very old-fashioned.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet | Credit: Andrew Eccles

Speaking of youth, what words of wisdom would you like to share with aspiring musicians?

That’s always difficult to say, but what is most important is that they have to be very passionate. If piano is not your absolute passion in life, you shouldn’t go for it, because you have to live with it. It has to be really something that is very, very strong if you’re going to spend your life with it. It’s always going to be your friend and it will never betray you. That’s the beauty of music, whether you make it your career or not.

And you also have to love practicing, love performing — it has to be the most important thing — and discipline. You have to have a disciplined life in general. Take care of yourself, take care of your body. Be healthy in your body and healthy in your mind. All of these things are important, they’re not really secrets. But one advice young people really need to hear is to learn how to be patient. They all want everything immediately — and if it does come fast — it’s not that good. It will come at the right time. They’re so hungry, so I say they should calm down and be patient.