Corrections or additions?
Author: Elaine Strauss. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January
12, 2000. All rights reserved.
Fashion Plate of the Piano: Thibaudet
Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet is a man who moves
on. It used to be that he was known for the signature red socks that
he wore in concert, for his addiction to cigarettes, and for adopting
New York as a home. Not any more.
"I loved the red socks," he says in an interview from his
hotel in Chicago. "It was very natural at first. But they
so much attention, it became a little too important. If people can’t
go beyond the red socks it’s not good for the music. So I gradually
retired them." Giving up smoking was his New Year’s resolution
for 1999. And he has abandoned New York in favor of Los Angeles.
Thibaudet, who tends to look like a Parisian fashion-plate, regardless
of the color of his socks, solos in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto
No. 1 with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra under the direction of
Music Director Zdenek Macal. The series of programs includes
at New Brunswick’s State Theater Thursday, January 20, and at
War Memorial Saturday, January 22.
The programs also include the uncut version of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony
No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27. In addition, in a pre-concert performance
in New Brunswick, pianists Edisher Savitsky and Vakhtang Kodanashvili
perform Rachmaninoff’s Six Duets, Op. 11 at 6:45 p.m. The pre-concert
performance is free to all ticket holders.
The performances with Thibaudet are part of an NJSO festival devoted
to the music of Rachmaninoff that runs from Wednesday, January 19,
to Sunday, February 6. Three groups of orchestral concerts conducted
by Macal consist of the composer’s piano concertos and symphonies.
Thibaudet appears in the first series of orchestral programs. The
second, on Thursday, January 27, at New Brunswick’s State Theater
and on Saturday, January 29, at Trenton’s War Memorial, presents
Concerto No. 3, with soloist Alexander Toradze; and Rachmaninoff’s
Symphony No. 3. The third, on Thursday, February 3, in New Brunswick,
and Friday, February 4, in Trenton, includes Rachmaninoff’s Concerto
No. 2 with soloist Tzimon Barto; and Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1.
The New Brunswick performances are preceded by pre-concert events.
Two additional Rachmaninoff festival events take place in the U.S.
1 area. A choral concert in the Princeton University Chapel features
the American Boychoir, along with the Russian Chamber Chorus of New
York and the Schola Cantorum on Hudson. The all-Rachmaninoff choral
program, without the NJSO, takes place Friday, January 21.
An all-Rachmaninoff piano program featuring members and alumni of
Alexander Toradze’s piano studio at the University of Indiana, South
Bend, takes place at Nicholas Music Center of Rutgers University
Thibaudet calls the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 1 "underrated."
"It never had the exposure of the second or third concertos,"
he says, "but it’s as glorious as the other two. It has all the
same qualities as the others — marvelous tunes and melodies. They
embrace you and you go out and sing them all night. It’s a youthful
piece, full of joy, passion, fire, and high hopes for life. It’s a
happy, happy piece.
"The original version was written when Rachmaninoff was just out
of conservatory," he continues. "It was revised later.
plays the revised version. The tunes are the same, but Rachmaninoff
later was an experienced composer, and he changed the orchestration.
He didn’t change the piece; he just polished it and it became more
mature. Originally, it was like a partially polished diamond. He cut
the repetitive bits, but kept the elan and youthfulness."
Rachmaninoff wrote the concerto in 1891, during his student days.
He himself was the soloist at the Carnegie Hall premiere of the
revised piece in 1919. Thibaudet made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1992
performing the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 2 with the Cleveland
Thibaudet remembers playing the Concerto No. 1 with Macal in Monte
Carlo in 1995. "It really touched me when Macal phoned; he
the Monte Carlo performance. It was with the New World Orchestra of
Florida, a training orchestra. The players were people between 18
and 25. It was like a trampoline. Macal was the guest conductor. He’s
a very passionate man, and a passionate conductor. Rachmaninoff is
right up his alley. He conducted with all his heart. He followed me
in every rubato."
For Thibaudet, Rachmaninoff’s music takes its place in a repertoire
that includes jazz, as well as classical music, and in a performing
career that includes movies and television as well as concert
He was born in Lyon, France, in 1962, to a French father and a German
mother. Music was important in the family. His father, a professor
of history and geography at the University of Lyon, was also a
and politician. At one point he played violin in an orchestra to make
money. Active in a Gaullist political party in the 1930s and 1940s,
he continued to play violin at home. "My mother played piano like
every good girl in Europe," Thibaudet says. "We played
As a child Thibaudet enjoyed pretending to be a
With four children in the family, he borrowed the dolls and teddy
bears of his siblings, arranged them to form a mock orchestra, and
directed them from a mock podium.
He began his piano studies at age five and made his first public
at age seven. At 12 he entered the Paris Conservatory, where he
with Aldo Ciccolini. When he was 15 Thibaudet won the major prize
at the Paris Conservatoire. Three years later, in 1981, he won the
Young Concert Artists Auditions in New York, which opened his way
to an American career.
Thibaudet’s training included studies with Lucette Descaves, a friend
and collaborator of Ravel. "It was quite an experience studying
with her," Thibaudet told Scott Duncan of the Orange County
"Whenever there would be a question about the score, she would
go to a cupboard and take down scores notated by Ravel." At 11
Thibaudet played the Ravel G minor concerto. By age 15 he had played
all of Ravel, except for the concerto for the left hand.
Included in Thibaudet’s discography of more than two dozen albums
is a two-CD set of Ravel’s complete works for solo piano, 110 minutes
worth of music. One of the highlights of his performance career has
been the programming of all the Ravel solo piano music in a single
concert. "I still do the Ravel marathon sometimes, for special
occasions," he says. "I did it a lot around 1992, when the
CD was released. Last season I did it at the Sidney Opera House. It’s
a lot of work."
Thibaudet finally came to perform the Ravel Concerto for the Left
Hand some years after the release of the solo piano music. "It’s
a great piece," says the two-handed pianist. "I used to have
the attitude that it was not worth doing. But the Proms in London
asked me to play it for their 100th anniversary in 1994 or ’95. They
wanted to do pieces that premiered at the Proms, and the Concerto
for the Left Hand premiered there. I argued for the G minor concerto,
but they told me they were not interested. Bless their heart. It’s
even more incredible than the G minor. It’s more powerful and darker.
It sounds like you have four hands."
"Ravel was mesmerized by blues and jazz," Thibaudet continues.
"He returned from the United States thrilled with jazz. It was
a natural process for me to move to jazz. There’s a real continuity
from Ravel and Debussy to jazz." In his programs, Thibaudet
jazz pieces, and his discography includes entire albums devoted to
Bill Evans and Duke Ellington.
His latest release, "The Chopin Touch," honoring the 150th
anniversary of the composer’s death, includes bonus tracks played
on Chopin’s last piano. The album draws from Chopin’s waltzes,
etudes, scherzos, polonaises, and mazurkas. "It’s a very personal
selection," says Thibaudet. "I selected the pieces from my
heart; some of them I’ve played since I was a kid. There are also
pieces that are important because they are most associated with
like the "Minute Waltz" and the "Polonaise Heroique."
Thibaudet’s Chopin was heard also in the fall on a 90-minute BBC
Thibaudet’s career also has included collaborations with some of the
world’s most renowned artists, including singers Cecilia Bartoli,
Olga Borodina, and Dmitry Hvorostovsky, and violinist Joshua Bell.
He appeared onstage at the Metropolitan Opera in the Giordani opera
"Fedora" as Chopin’s nephew, a pianist and a part-time spy.
Thibaudet’s piano playing was the sole accompaniment for the first
dramatic confrontation of the opera between singers Placido Domingo
and Mirella Freni.
Thibaudet maintains homes in both Paris and Los Angeles. "I moved
to Los Angeles from New York last year," he says. "My approach
to having a home is the opposite of everybody else’s. Home to me is
like a vacation; it’s a time to rest. When I come home it’s a time
of relaxation, and a time to enjoy friends." The weather in
California is part of the appeal for Thibaudet. "I’m not a winter
person," he says. "I’m a beach person. I like being able to
go out, and lie in the sun. I can recharge my batteries. It’s better
than New York and 33 snow storms when you can’t fly out of the
I think Southern California is a blessed part of world. It reminds
me of the south of France, of walking in nature there. Even the smells
are like the south of France."
Thibaudet plans to reduce his concert load from his present 100 to
120 concerts a year to 60 or 80 performances. "You cannot be
traveling," he says. What will he do with his time? "I’ll
be at home in Paris and Los Angeles, practicing Mozart maybe."
Thibaudet foresees modifying his musical focus. With French composers,
Liszt, and a few Russians the staples of his repertoire, the Germans
have played a relatively small role. Thibaudet anticipates giving
new attention to Mozart and to Brahms. "I played Mozart when I
was younger," he says. "You have to play what you feel like
playing at a particular moment. I don’t have any new ideas about
at the moment; I have nothing special to say. Who needs me to play
Mozart in concerts? It’s just not the right moment. I play Mozart
for friends. But I have to do more research, and think about Mozart.
I adore playing his music. It’s still there. But there are only 24
hours in a day, and too many big projects."
One of Thibaudet’s big projects is Brahms. He has scheduled the Brahms
concertos for the next concert season, and is playing Brahms’ solo
piano music as preparation for the concertos. Indeed, in 1995 he
Brahms’ "Variations on a Theme by Paganini." The reviewer
in Gramophone observed "Predictably the technical challenges hold
few fears for him . . . But never is virtuosity an end in itself.
What surprised and pleased me most was Thibaudet’s readiness to relax
and revel in the romance, the mystery, the lyrical charm, and the
sheer tonal seductiveness of the less demonstrative, the more
expressive, variations." The approach is one that the reviewer
calls "fancifully Gallic."
In the Brahms recording Thibaudet seems to have melded the French
heritage of his father with the German heritage of his mother. Now,
the composer looms larger in his musical career, and Thibaudet is
satisfied with the encounter. "Brahms is coming along," he
says. "It’s on the map now."
Thibaudet is moving along in ways that are more central to an artist’s
existence than red socks or chain smoking. Musically, he could be
turning a corner.
— Elaine Strauss
State Theater, New Brunswick, 800-ALLEGRO. First program in the
features piano soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, in Rachmaninoff’s Concerto
No. 1 and Symphony No. 2. $15 to $58. Thursday, January 20, 8
Princeton University Chapel, 800-ALLEGRO. The Boychoir, with the
Chamber Chorus of New York and Schola Cantorum on Hudson, in choral
works by Rachmaninoff. $10 & $15. Friday, January 21, 7:30 p.m.
800-ALLEGRO. Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Rachmaninoff’s Concerto
No. 1 and Symphony No. 2. $15 to $58. Saturday, January 22, 8
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