This week will not be the first time that Jean-Yves Thibaudet will perform in Miami, but it will be the first time he plays with the Cleveland Orchestra (a Knight Arts grantee) at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall. Thibaudet, the most outstanding French pianist of his generation, has long been a kind of “prince among pianists”–so it is perhaps no coincidence that he cites Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” as a strong influence. The story left its mark on Thibaudet’s childhood and adolescence, and continues to illuminate his adulthood. To wit, he keeps a collection of more than 100 versions of it at his house in Paris.
Between his time in the French capital and his second home in Los Angeles, the Lyon native travels constantly around the planet as a French cultural “ambassador,” performing by himself, with orchestras and chamber ensembles, and even accompanying singers, some as famous as he is. Opera is one of his passions, and he transmits that passion when, as he says, he “sings through the piano.” His album of arias for piano keeps delighting opera lovers and serves as an introduction for those who want to explore the genre.
To think of Thibaudet is to recall Ravel, Debussy and Oliver Messiaen (whom the pianist had the privilege of knowing well). It is to recall the great romantic repertoire, as well as jazz, to which Thibaudet claims to be “addicted.”
Do you have favorite piano pieces? I can’t point to a favorite piece, but rather to a favorite repertoire, a musical period which often coincides with what I am playing at the moment. Right now, it’s the romantic period, the richest of all, from Schumann to Rachmaninoff. And, of course, the French repertoire, in addition to the classical and the contemporary, because it is important for a performer to know and stay in tune with his time.
You were a wunderkind. How did that start? I learned to read music before I learned the alphabet, and I made my public debut at age 7. I was a child, and for me it was just a fun game, something completely natural. Nerves were not a factor, and neither was pressure. All that came later, and right now stage fright is just part of the excitement of playing in public. Being on the edge of the abyss and achieving the perfect balance makes the artistic act a challenge that keeps each performance alive.
Was your family environment an influence? My parents were not professional musicians. In my home, music was loved; it was part of life. Exposing me to music early, but never forcing me, was their successful approach. I am infinitely grateful to them. That is why it is essential to give children the opportunity to discover the world of music without pushing or pressuring them, but as an enriching experience. Later, they can decide for themselves.
What differences do you perceive between 20th- and 21st-century audiences? There’s been generational turnover. I remember when audiences were made up of very old people. Now I see many young people, especially in America and Asia. We were and are worried about winning over audiences, but we must be doing something right, because we’re seeing results, little by little. We must also credit social media, which has brought audiences and artists together; there’s a very healthy, refreshing immediacy about it. Twenty-first century audiences are not satisfied with merely attending a concert. They want to know you, to know what you do and what you’re like. They want to connect, and the artist must be more open, less reticent. He can no longer live in his microcosm. It is part of the game you have to play. It also recruits people to the world of music. I love it, because I see the audience as part of my family. Without it, I don’t exist.
Soprano Régine Crespin used to say that “charme” distinguished French performers from the rest. Is there a “French touch”? There could be, though today the constant exchange among teachers and conservatories is diluting it. There’s a great French tradition as to sound, color quality and transparency and, above all, it is the cultural legacy that lends it that patina. And, of course, there’s the great pianist Samson Francois, whom I particularly admire.
What can you tell us about your teacher, Aldo Ciccolini, the great Neapolitan pianist who popularized composer Erik Satie’s work? He was the most exceptional human being I ever met. He was a complete model–cultured, intelligent, fascinating, master of an extremely large repertoire. He could play entire operas on the piano, from memory. With Ciccolini, lessons were not about music, but about life. In a certain sense, I feel orphaned, now that I can’t consult him. And here’s something curious: I met him when I was 15 and he was 53; when he died last year, I realized I was already 53, a surprising coincidence.
Will you play Liszt with the Cleveland Orchestra? I am happy to do so, because Liszt nowadays is an underrated musician. People think of Liszt only in terms of his virtuosity and showmanship, and they are wrong, because he was also a profound composer, an encyclopedic man, a total creator. That trait is particularly evident in his Piano Concerto No. 2, which, between one revision and another, took him 20 years to finish. It boasts an amazing modernity for its age. Playing it with the Cleveland Orchestra will be like a gigantic chamber exercise.
Could you choose between Europe and America–your two homes? I love my European roots but feel very comfortable in America, which has supported me so much. I admire American organization and the American system. I am moved by patrons who support the arts passionately. It’s a phenomenon you don’t see in Europe, where the state is the main sponsor. Those who build museums, theaters, collections are authentic patrons of the arts, the true princes of today.
Jean-Yves Thibaudet will perform with the Cleveland Orchestra at Knight Concert Hall on March 17-19. Tickets are available online.