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


February 1.

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

Rachmaninoff Festival, New Jersey Symphony

Orchestra ,

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


Voices of Rachmaninoff, NJSO & American Boychoir,

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.

Rachmaninoff Festival, NJSO, War Memorial, Trenton,

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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