Thirty years ago, Houstonians watched a dashingly stylish young French pianist strut out to the Steinway, seat himself on the bench, and begin to play. He and his then trademark red socks seemed to announce that something extraordinary was about to happen. And it did.
This writer was in that audience, captivated (as we all were) by this French phenom. Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s encore that night, Chopin’s “Raindrop” Etude, was so simply and profoundly performed that it has inhabited my musical memory for three decades.
Fast-forward to 2019, and the Houston Symphony’s lively September 27–29 program will feature Thibaudet performing Gershwin’s swaggering Piano Concerto in F alongside the Gershwin Suite from Porgy and Bess and works by Copland and Chávez.
Thibaudet’s “journey to jazz” (as it relates to the Gershwin concerto) has been propelled by a lifetime of reflection, study, and performance. The pianist took a few minutes from his busy touring schedule to speak with OutSmart about all things musical (as well as his upcoming appearance).
“Interestingly, even though I started my life as a strictly ‘classical’ musician, I played this concerto when I was only 14 years old,” Thibaudet recalls. “At that age, I didn’t know what jazz really was. It didn’t exist for me then—only several years later. I played the concerto without knowing anything about jazz. I suspect my performance was very straightforward—every bar and rhythmic pattern played just as written, exactly as a young pianist would do it. I would love to hear that performance now, but fortunately there are no recordings of it! Now, of course, I know that it’s impossible to interpret the music of Gershwin if you don’t comprehend jazz. It would be like speaking a language phonetically: you’d be able to pronounce the words, but you really wouldn’t have any idea what you were saying.
“Central to knowing the Gershwin concerto is having a complete understanding of its rhythmic elements. The ‘swing’ that’s characteristic of Gershwin is one of the most difficult things for a classical musician to comprehend and execute. In a way, it defies notation [in the printed score]. It’s not really ‘there;’ you must simply feel it.”
Thibaudet’s interest in jazz is evidenced by his early recordings based on Duke Ellington and the famous American jazz pianist Bill Evans. “Playing, researching, and performing jazz for all these years has completely enhanced my interpretation of Gershwin. Not that any of it is improvised, but this knowledge informs the concerto and helps me to create the right atmosphere for the piece.”
Many of Thibaudet’s favorite French composers—Debussy, Satie, and Ravel—were composing during the same post-World War I period as Gershwin. “This is fascinating for me, [being French]. We know that both Ravel and Gershwin were [simultaneously] admiring each other. This concerto is an interesting mixture of two composers I love.”
In 2020, Thibaudet is playing the Gershwin concerto and a Ravel piano concerto on the same program. “These pieces are connected. Often, people attempt to compartmentalize music; however, everything is linked in some way. Nothing would exist without what came before. These composers all inspired each other, and their music resides in a kind of collective memory. That’s what makes the repertoire of this period so interesting.”
Gershwin isn’t the only composer Thibaudet loves. He’s known for his ability to interpret a wide variety of musical styles. His discography includes film soundtracks (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and collaborations with other preeminent musicians such as violinist Joshua Bell and soprano Renée Fleming. Thibaudet is equally comfortable exploring the jazz greats, several modern composers, and all of the pianistic masters: Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Schumann, and Debussy, each with his own specific musical style and lyricism. Thibaudet is an artful communicator, musically and otherwise. “I speak a few languages,” he says. “Maybe this helps me with music.”
As an established artist, Thibaudet can now freely select his repertoire. “Fortunately, at this point in my career, I can concentrate on works that I feel compelled to perform. Many younger pianists are expected to know and play ‘standard’ pieces. People will tell you what music you have to learn, and sometimes it’s not a work you particularly like. Since I only play music that I love, it’s very easy for me to shift from one composition to another, be it a Beethoven concerto or a jazz piece.”
In the media Thibaudet is often called “French-American.” As a result, he sometimes wonders (jokingly) about “who he actually is.” As of 2019, he has actually spent more time in America (both in New York and Los Angeles) than in France. “This country has been wonderful to me, and wonderful for my career. More importantly, this is where I feel comfortable, having lived here for 30 years.”
In an era when many Americans and Europeans have divergent worldviews, Thibaudet focuses on the unique benefits provided by his profession. “As an artist who resides in Los Angeles, I live in a special place—it’s a bit of an artistic ‘bubble.’ I don’t have to deal with many things that other people confront on a daily basis. My ‘job’ is vastly different from most. I tour quite a bit, but when I’m home, I practice. I try not to be distracted from my life’s work—music. I am very fortunate.”
“I feel that it’s important for the music I play to have [and convey] some sort of message. I love composers who have a very powerful ‘voice,’ be it spiritual or otherwise. People ‘feel’ music. You don’t always know what it is, but music can transform you. You are changed. Musicians and composers are here to provide an experience that transports listeners. We can create beauty and happiness, especially in a world that is increasingly complicated and difficult. People experience music and it makes them feel better. I (and other musicians) are privileged and extremely grateful to be able to provide that.”
What: Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet performs with the Houston Symphony
When: September 27–29
Where: Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St.
Info: houstonsymphony.org or 713.224.7575