Jean-Yves Thibaudet Interview with Bruce Duffie . . . . .
Pianist  Jean-Yves  Thibaudet
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Each of us is a creature of his or her own time.  We live from year A until year B, and that period is our joy or our burden... or both!

Within that framework, we interact with others who will be somewhere within their own lifespans.  It is always interesting to relate to them, and even more when one can see them progress from youth to maturity.

In my own case, I have met a few musicians who were just getting started, many who were in the midst of a career, and some who were either tapering off or completely retired.  Being in Chicago, with its top flight orchestra and opera company, we had the very best of both local and international talent.  We also continue to have smaller groups and special concerts, thus providing the whole gamut of circumstances from which to choose.

In this case, my 1993 conversation with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet caught him on the upswing, so to speak.  He was here for a Bastille Day concert at Grant Park, playing the Piano Concerto #2 by Saint-Saëns, conducted by his compatriot Catherine Comet.  He already had a few years of experience, and was moving toward that upper level of international personalities.  But looking back on it from a vantage point of just over twenty more years (2014), one can see how much he has accomplished and how far he has come in a hugely successful and varied public persona.

To read all about his career to date, see the biography provided by his agency which is reproduced at the bottom of this webpage. 

For now, here is that earlier conversation . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Thank you for seeing me on your arrival.  Is the life of a ‘wandering minstrel’ too hectic?

Jean-Yves Thibaudet:    Well, it is hectic.  I just arrived from Italy today.  I do it all the time so you kind of get used to it.  It’s very exciting at the same time.  It’s a little tiring, of course, just because I travel so much and there is the jet-lag and everything.  But your body gets used to it.  It’s really part of my life.  I couldn’t stand being in the same city all the year long.  I would get so bored.  [Laughs]

thibaudet BD:    Do you have enough time in each city to get used to it and to understand it?

J-YT:    Sometimes not.... actually most of the time, unfortunately, because being a pianist you don’t really get to stay very long in a city.  You arrive the day before, have one rehearsal, and play that night and then you leave.  Conductors stay at least a week with all the rehearsals, but we can arrive in the morning, play in the evening and leave the next morning.  So very often, unfortunately, I don’t have time to see anything but the concert hall.

BD:    Is it better with a symphonic concert where you play three or four nights?

J-YT:    That’s right.  It’s true that with most orchestras now there’s three or four concerts, then with two or three days rehearsal makes about a week.  That’s really great because you
’re busy until the first performance and then it’s only in the evening.  You have all day long so you can really enjoy yourself.  Then we have festivals.  I was in recently in Spoleto.  I went there for about two weeks and that was fantastic.  I can just stay there and go round and it was nice.

BD:    You play solo recitals, chamber music, and orchestral concerts.  How do you divide your career amongst all of those?

J-YT:    Right now it’s mostly orchestra.  I would say I play 70% - 75% with orchestra, then maybe 10% - 15% recitals, and 5% - 10% chamber music.  It’s not by choice.  It’s just that there are fewer and fewer recitals in the world.  I don’t know why but it’s really difficult for presenters to sell tickets.  There must be some kind of feeling because orchestras are really strong, and recitals are really less!  I think it’s sad because recitals are a beautiful thing, and it’s probably the best way to judge a musician.  In a recital you’re really by yourself and you just have to express.  It’s different.  Then I do chamber music because I just love it and it’s very important for me to do it.  Also I play a bit, maybe 1%, for singers, which is absolutely fantastic.  That’s actually what I like the most.  That’s what gives me the most real deep pleasure, musically.  Playing for a singer is fantastic.  I do it, but very, very seldom.  The only person I did it for recently was Brigitte Fassbaender.  We made two records together and had a long tour all over Europe.  It was absolutely fascinating, and I learned more from that than ten years of piano practicing.

BD:    You learned how to play the piano by watching the singer breathe?

J-YT:    Yes, I learned about breathing, phrasing, and just following a singer.  It was so marvelous, and musically you learn so much, especially from such an artist as great as her.  For me it’s been just like the essence of music.  It’s been deep pleasure, that’s really like a reward for me to have a couple of concerts with her.

BD:    When you’re playing with her, obviously she’s selecting the music, but when you’re playing a solo recital or even chamber music, you get a hand in the selection.

J-YT:    Absolutely, yes.  Recitals are really 100% my choice of course.  The orchestras are of course worried because they have to program their seasons.  They have the list of repertoire that I play, and then we discuss it.  Usually we would give them a list of... actually it’s quite a big list of concertos, and they just choose what they want.  Eventually they will propose something that’s not on the list, and then I can decide if I want to learn it or not, which is always good.

BD:    How would you decide?  If they propose something, what will make you decide yes, you will learn it, or no, you’ll turn it down?

J-YT:    It’s a lot of things.  First it’s the piece by itself.  If I like the piece, perhaps, but if hate the piece, then I say I’m not interested.  If I love their piece or it’s something I always wanted to learn but didn’t have time or the opportunity to learn, then it’s a good opportunity.  It also depends on the orchestra and on the conductor.  Sometimes it’s interesting to learn something for a special occasion.  Actually that’s probably the best for me.  I have a problem that I can’t learn a piece unless I have to play it for a special concert.  I have to be motivated, which is horrible to say, but it has to do with time and everything.  I
m so busy with things that I’m not going to go to the piano and learn this piece if I don’t have to play it.  I just don’t really have time.  Either I’m going to practice when I have to play, or I am going to take vacation.  So in fact it’s good when the orchestra asks me.   Usually I do it unless I really hate it piece!  I say, Oh great, then I’m going to learn it.  It’s a good thing.

BD:    So that’s your motivation?

thibaudet J-YT:    That’s my motivation to learn a new piece, right!   And I do that at least two new concertos every year, if not more sometimes.  I have already maybe forty-one or forty-three that I’ve played, but I think it’s important you have to do them especially when you’re still young. You have to learn as much music as you can because it gets more and more difficult later for a lot of different reasons.  I’m only thirty-one.  I’m not really old, but I already have more difficulties.  It’s more difficult for me now to learn a new piece than ten years ago or even five years ago.  Not technically because I’m a very good sight-reader so I can learn a piece very quickly for the notes, but it is just there is more and more pressure.  I used to have run-throughs, and now it’s not the same if you’re going to the Boston Symphony and it’s the first time you’ve played a piece.  There’s got to be a first time somewhere.  And then there are all the records people have at home and hear on radio.  Now when you go somewhere it really has to be good the first time.  So it really adds a lot of pressure, which is good, but it means that it takes me more time now to learn a new piece to be comfortable and be happy with it.

BD:    Because you have to get to a higher level?

J-YT:    That’s right.  It’s true, you really must.  But it’s great.  I love it, but it just means I cannot just learn a new piece and go and play it around like I used to! 

BD:    You’re more well-known!

J-YT:    That’s right.  I have to be careful.  I think people expect a certain approach.  It’s not the level, but they have all the records now on the market.  When you go somewhere, you always have to remember that.  That’s the thing with an artist.  It’s so difficult because wherever you are in a career, you always have to be the best of yourself when you play somewhere.  People only hear you one night, so they don’t care if last night you played like a god in New York.  When you play it this night in whatever city, they have to hear that night, and if they don’t like it, they say, “Oh, I heard him.  He wasn’t so good.”  Then they’re just not going to call you for ten years.  It’s really very difficult.

BD:    Do you feel people are comparing the live performance with the recordings?

J-YT:    I think so, and that’s a big problem.  I love recording.  We could live without them, but a big problem with the CD now is this kind of perfection that people now are hearing at home.  They have this collation of CDs, and before they go to a concert they listen to whoever they have at home.  Then they go to the concert and even if it’s the same person, they hear him live and they’re disappointed.  They say, “But I have his CD at home and it’s better.”  The sound might be better, and in fact the impression is worse with singers because you get a completely wrong impression.  With a CD you can have a small voice become huge.  Then you go to the concert hall and you hear this little voice, and people are so disappointed.  They say, “I can’t believe it!  I heard her at home and she was great, and then I can’t hear her here.”  

BD:    So people want to turn up the volume in the theater?

J-YT:    Right, and they can’t.  That is exactly what happens.  So I think it’s a real danger with people just used to technical perfection that you cannot always have in a live performance.  I still think a live performance is much more exciting than a CD if it’s perfect, but people are expecting a certain sound.  They have really high expectations now.

BD:    Do you feel that your live performances are better
even if they’re not better technically, they might be better musically?

J-YT:    Yes.  There is something in a live performance which is unexplainable.  It is something happening there that’s just not happening in the studio.  I would say, though, with orchestras it’s almost like live performance because when you record with an orchestra, it’s a very short time to record.  You have, maybe, one session for one CD, which is about three hours.  So it’s almost like a live performance.  You’re really placed with a piece, and it really has to be right there.  Also the orchestra is like your audience.  Recitals are the most difficult because you’re all by yourself in the studio, and then you have to get the atmosphere.  But with orchestra it’s almost like a live performance.

BD:    Do you try to make it a live performance in the recording studio?

J-YT:    Absolutely.  We’re all trying to do that.  And it does happen.  It just happens and you can control it.  When I do solo sessions in the morning, I just can’t.  The best time is always late in the evening because you get the atmosphere.  It’s just that some days it doesn’t happen.  I can work for three days on a solo recording, when you’re just by yourself, and very often on one day there’s just nothing that we’re going to use.  Even if it’s good technically, it’s just not happening, and then suddenly at one certain point of the day it’s going to be something happening.  You’re good, and you just have to go on and do as much as you can.  It’s just things you can’t control.  It just happens sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t happen.

BD:    Is it the atmosphere?

J-YT:    Absolutely, the atmosphere, and the way you feel, the way you get the mood.

BD:    So you hope that all the technical business is right at that point?

J-YT:    At that point, yes!  But thank God, usually they are up to that, so it’s good.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You have this vast amount of repertoire to choose from.  How do you decide which pieces you will put on each recital or on each record?

thibaudet J-YT:    This is where there’s lot of things involved.  Of course there is special repertoire I like better now.  I’ve been concentrating recently mostly in the Romantic repertoire
Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Brahms, Schumann — and the French ImpressionistsClaude Debussy, particularly, and Ravel.  But then I also get involved in the recording process because when we plan a recording, I’ve got to play it as much as I can before in concerts.  I discuss with the record company what they want me to record, what I would like to record, and they accept it or not.  Once we have that said, then I know that season we do play this and make a record.  So it all kind of goes together.  Then there are things that I just want to play.  I just want to learn and want to play them, even if I don’t record them.  There’s always a couple of recitals a year where I decide what I want to do.

BD:    Do your recital programs get better and better each time you play them, or are they polished by the first time?

J-YT:    They’re probably polished.  I have been polishing them technically.  Every pianist or whatever musician who has a career now has to be on a really high technical level because people expect it.  But then whatever you do, how ever much you’re going to practice, the first time you play something it can be very good, but after a hundred performances it’ll be better.  There’s just no question about it.  You can’t explain it in words.  It’s just that the more you play something, the more you discover things.  And the more you get close to the music, the more you enjoy it.  It just grows.  It’s like a child becoming an adult.  A piece is growing the same way.  You discover new things and it just becomes part of yourself.  It’s wonderful to actually play a piece a lot, then leave it aside for one or two seasons and then play it again.  It’s completely different.  It’s a great feeling.

BD:    How do you keep it fresh after that thirtieth, or sixtieth or ninetieth performance?

J-YT:    That’s right!  It also depends on the piece.  The way to judge a piece is to see how fresh it stays.  It is the same thing with a concerto.  To go on tour with an orchestra is the only way to judge a piece, because when you play it every night for seventeen times in a row, if it lasts until the end and you still enjoy yourself, then it’s a great piece.  If it doesn’t, it can still be a good piece, but just not so great, and it is considered very, very easily. 

BD:    So then do you quietly drop that from your repertoire?

J-YT:    Oh, not drop, but you just know that you don’t want to play it too much.  You play it once in a while, but there are some pieces which I could play every night and still enjoy them.

BD:    In every city that you come to, you have a different piano that you’re playing. 

J-YT:    That’s a nightmare!

BD:    How do you overcome the various aspects of the nightmare?

J-YT:    It just becomes part of your life.  You have to accept the fact that some nights it just won’t be a great piano.  In one sense it’s not fair because when a violinist comes in a city, he always has his instrument.  We come to a city and just play what is there, and the people listen to you and say, “He didn’t play so well.”  They don
’t say, “But the instrument wasn’t so great!”  They don’t care.  They just listen to you and if it’s bad piano, you just have to do the best you can.

BD:    Can the technician do anything to help?

J-YT:    They can do something, but they can
’t do miracles.  It’s like a good car.  If you have an old car, you can go to the garage and fix something, but it won’t make it a new car!

BD:    How is the level of pianos around the world?

J-YT:    It depends on countries.  It’s difficult to say.  Basically it’s a good level now, thank God, with all the good, new modern halls and orchestras.  They usually have at least two pianos to choose from, and they are usually in good condition.  But it becomes more and more difficult and more and more specific about what you like, and it’s difficult to find a piano that makes you very happy every night.  So sometimes I’m very happy, and sometimes a little less happy.

BD:    If money were no object, would you travel with your own piano?

J-YT:    It would be absolutely fantastic.  I think I need two. You should have one for the States and then one in Europe.  That would be absolutely fantastic!  [Both laugh]  The problem is not to buy the piano; it’s the transportation that costs an awful lot of money.  You could have a piano, but to get it from one point to another would be so expensive.  But this is fantastic, the ultimate thing you could dream of.  I think every pianist would say that because then it makes a completely different atmosphere.  It’s just like you have your own baby with you.  You arrive on stage, and you would not even be nervous, but just feel so comfortable.  When you arrive on stage and find your piano, part of yourself is there every night.  It would be really marvelous.  But it’s a dream that I don’t think will ever come true very often.

BD:    I wonder if it would be practical just to take the action out of the piano and put your own action into it?

J-YT:    It’s funny you say that.  The marvelous technician in Paris who takes care of my piano there was telling me about the famous pianist named Samson François.  He was telling me that when Samson was playing around in France and Europe, and he was his technician, he would go around with the action.  He’s actually the one who invented the system whereby he would arrive somewhere and just put the action in.  The action is probably half or three-quarters of the problem in fact.  The rest of the pianos are already good, but at least you have a really good action.  That’s maybe something to think about.

Samson François

Born: May 18, 1924 - Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Died: October 22, 1970 - Paris, France

francois The admired French pianist, Samson Pascal François, was born in Frankfurt where his father worked at the French consulate. His mother, Rose, named him Samson, for strength, and Pascal, for spirit. François discovered the piano early - at the age of two - and his first studies were in Italy, with Mascagni, who encouraged him to give his first concert at the age of 6, in which he played a Mozart concerto under Mascagni. Moving from country to country with his itinerant family, he studied in Belgrade with Cyril Licar, obtaining a first prize in performance. Licar also introduced him to the works of Béla Bartók. Having studied in the Conservatoire in Nice from 1932 to 1935, where he again won first prize, François came to the attention of Alfred Cortot, who encouraged him to move to Paris and study with Yvonne Lefébure at the l'École Normale de Musique, the school Cortot co-founded with Auguste Mangeot. He also studied piano with Cortot (who reportedly found him almost impossible to teach), and harmony with Nadia Boulanger. In 1938, he moved to the Paris Conservatoire to study with Marguerite Long, the doyenne of French teachers of the age. In 1940 he won premier prix at this Conservatoire.

In 1943 François won the Long-Thibaud Competition and thereafter embarked on a career, one of international scale once World War II had ended. Even during the war, Jacques Thibaud brought François to the attention of Walter Legge, the English recording producer turned wartime concert organizer; François was soon flown to England for an extended tour of factories and camps. From 1945 he toured regularly in Europe, and in 1947 he made his first appearances in the USA. He subsequently played all over the globe, including Communist China in 1964. Concentrating on the Romantic piano literature and especially the French repertoire, he was acclaimed for his performances of Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann, and Chopin, as well as Gabriel Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel. His Prokofiev, too, was impressive. French critics and audiences were especially receptive to his virtuosic approach. François found an appreciative audience in London as well, and enjoyed a largely positive reputation there during his mature years. His extravagant lifestyle, good looks, and passionate but highly disciplined playing, gave him a cult status as a pianist, though his passion for night life and his reckless behavior (characterized by lavish drinking and drug use) resulted in a heart attack on the concert platform in 1968. His early death followed only two years later.

Samson François was also a keen jazz fan, and claimed that jazz influenced his playing. Among his other pursuits was that of composition. He composed, among other works, a concerto for piano and incidental music for film. Among his recordings is one of his own piano concerto.

BD:    A portable action!

J-YT:    A portable action!  The action is very heavy and takes a lot of room.  It’s not like and electronic keyboard.

BD:    But you could put it in a reasonably-sized case.

J-YT:    Yes, definitely.  Maybe you’re right, we should think about that.   [Muses a moment]  We’re going to travel with the action now!

BD:    After all, other instrumentalists travel with their instruments.

J-YT:    That’s true.  Cellists have to carry their cello, and whatever...  [Both laugh]

BD:    Coming back to current reality, when you get to a piano, how long does it take before it is as close to your own as possible?

J-YT:    It doesn’t for one concert.  We can play very well, but it’s still uncomfortable.  I would think it’s like a person.  You cannot get to know a person in one day, but you can have an attraction right away.  I play three notes on a piano and I know if I’m going to like it or not.  But if I don’t like it too much, I have to still enjoy it.  So I’ll just try to like it anyway, but it’s a long time before you really know a piano fully.  And it all depends on what you want to do with it.  But it’s nothing like having your piano at home that you play every day.  Actually you also make a piano.  When you have a new piano, it can be a beautiful piano, but it’s like a new pair of shoes.  They can be beautiful shoes, but then they do round your foot.  It is the same thing with a piano.  You really make it to what you like.

BD:    Is it right for you
or the audience, or the composersto expect the same piano now to play French Impressionism, then Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff, and Bach all on the same instrument?

J-YT:    Yes, I think so.  That’s one of the qualities of the Steinways
that they’re a very versatile instrument.  You can really play anything.  It’s true that some pianos will be extra dreamy to play Ravel, and maybe a little less to play Beethoven, or vice-versa.  But basically if a piano is good, you can play everything.

BD:    I’m surprised that they’re that versatile.

J-YT:    Yes, they really are.  If it’s a good piano you can really play anything on it. 

BD:    Do you always play Steinways, or have you occasionally played Bösendorfer or Baldwin, or other makes?

J-YT:    Very seldom.  The only other piano I would play if it’s not Steinway would be Bösendorfer.  Very rarely, but some of them are sometimes very beautiful.  I was in Vienna last month and I played a couple of them, and they were actually very interesting.  For certain repertoire they can be really beautiful.  Actually, for playing for a singer it is quite an interesting piano.

BD:    It’s got a mellower sound?

J-YT:    Yes, it’s very mellow.  It’s not a very easy and fast action, but for playing with a singer it’s really mellow, and you’ve got a nice bass.  It’s a different thing.

BD:    It’s not a sluggish action is it?

J-YT:    Not at all, it’s just you have to know how to use it.  It’s a different kind of feel; you just feel it differently, but I really enjoyed those two or three over there I played.  But all the rest of the time I play Steinways.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you play concertos, whose ideas take precedence
the pianist or the conductor?

J-YT:    The pianist. 

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Always?

thibaudet J-YT:    The conductor is always supposed to be the conductor of the orchestra that follows the soloist.  Technically it doesn’t really work that way because we’re all following each other.  We’re all making music together.  Anyway, I actually always know the orchestral part as much as the piano part.  For me, playing with an orchestra
even if it’s a real big orchestrait’s like chamber music.  I listen constantly to every instrument of the orchestra.  That’s the only way to be really together and to really have a good time.  You can’t expect a hundred and ten people to follow you every minute.  The conductor just can’t make it work.  It’s not like pushing a button, you know.  They need time to react and everything, so in reality we just have to all follow each other.  But as far as important things like tempi and dynamics, it’s really the soloist who knows what he wants, and the conductor should agree.  Even so, people can have fights, but I never have fights because I decided a while ago that when you play one evening with a conductor, it’s not worth having a fight because it’s just one evening of your life.  You should just enjoy it.  The conductor sees it a different way.  It’s not that I give up, but you can find a compromise and make everyone happy.

BD:    And then make sure you don’t work with him again?

J-YT:    Well, that’s right.  [Laughs]  Otherwise you make your life miserable and it’s not worth it. Actually I cannot think of any performance where I had a fight or an unhappy discussion. 

BD:    Let me turn it around.  Have you found conductors that have been able to teach you new things about your repertoire?

J-YT:    Oh, absolutely!  I could have played a piece a certain way for a long time, and the conductor would tell me, “What about this?  Would you try that?
  So we’d try it, and from that day I play that way.  Oh, absolutely.  I think you learn every day from everybody.  I learned something very important the other day which was very funny.  I played the Grieg Concerto.  I was in Norway and this year, as you know, was the 150th anniversary of Grieg, so there was a very special concert.  I went to his actual home in Troldhaugen, out there in Bergen.  I played on his piano, and then I played his Concerto with the orchestra.  We played the Grieg Concerto the date of his birth, June 15th.  During the first rehearsal, one of the second violins of the orchestra came to me and said there was something strange happening in a certain bar near the end, so could we do it slowly?  He told me, “I think you’re playing a wrong note.”  We did it slowly, and it turned out that I was playing a wrong note that I had been playing for years!  It was an F sharp that I was playing F natural for years.  Thank God I have not recoded it yet, but I might one day, and I would have recorded it with the wrong note!  This guy was a violinist, but no conductor ever told me it was an F natural there.  I said, “Oh my God!  Thank you!”  So you see, you learn every day from someone. 

BD:    It probably just clashed with what he was playing.  He was probably doubling you at that point

J-YT:    That’s right, he was doubling my left-hand.  It was a chord, and it’s not loud, but you can really hear it.  I never noticed that it was actually wrong.

BD:    Was it special to play Grieg in his home town?

J-YT:    It was fantastic.  I was there a week.  I was in Bergen and in Stavanger.  I’ve been there before and it’s a fantastic country.  The nature is so beautiful.  It’s absolutely unique, and for this kind of music you cannot really understand it unless you’ve seen the place.  Especially because Grieg was very close to his country and to the folk themes, when you see his house and where he was composing, it’s a little house in the middle of the garden looking at the sea, and with all the beautiful landscape it’s absolutely gorgeous.  It really changed completely my way of feeling it.  I hate to say that when you play something you think of something, but it’s just that you really understand a lot of things.  It’s so beautiful, and having been able to be there and play this music there was really, really very moving.  It was a very touching experience.

BD:    Is this what makes playing French music special to you
having been in Paris and growing up where the composers lived and worked?

J-YT:    Well, I don’t know.  Until now in my life, this Grieg experience has been the only one when I was so moved.  I love Ravel’s music.  I grew up in France and I’ve seen his house, but it’s not just the same kind of thing for me.  I don’t know.  For some reason, the beautiful nature is much more present in Grieg’s music than the French part is in theirs.  I don’t say Ravel’s not French, it’s what I feel.  I felt very strongly this overwhelming beauty of the nature in Norway, and in his music.  It was really interesting. 

BD:    You’ve made something of a specialty of Ravel, though?

J-YT:    Yes, absolutely.  I have played Ravel since I was a little kid, and I was always attracted to his music.  Maybe it’s something in me because I’m French and I grew up in France, but I don’t really realize it anymore.   When I was in Norway the first time I was really impressed with it, so I don’t know.  Maybe it’s part of myself.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you play differently for different size halls?

thtibaudet J-YT:    You have to adjust to the piano, and to a lot of things including the acoustic of the hall.  That’s why we have what we call acoustic rehearsals.  Even if you’re on tour with an orchestra every night, we arrive at six o’clock and we just try the hall for five minutes.  It can be interesting because some are very dry and some are very alive, so you may have to add half-pedal .  You feel it.  It’s kind of natural, and you don’t have to think about it.  It’s just that your foot knows if you have to add the pedal.  It becomes a natural adjustment.  But it’s good to try the piano, and to try to feel the hall.  It is important to feel what it feels like to be on stage, and how the sound responds to you when it comes back to you.

BD:    Do you feel the audience that is sitting there exciting?

J-YT:    Absolutely, yes, and you feel them the moment you come in.  It’s really a relation between the audience and the performer.  That’s what makes live concerts so beautiful.  You’ve got a complicity with the audience.  It’s like a ping-pong game.  We send the ball, and it comes back.  It’s an electricity which you really feel, though sometimes you don’t feel anything.  You feel the audience very far and very cold.  But if the moment you come in you see they’re really going to be warm and responsive, that’s what makes the miracle and the beauty of a performer.

BD:    We’re dancing around it, so let me ask the question directly.  What is the purpose of music?

J-YT:    I think the purpose of music is just to give joy to people.  A performer has to have some kind of talent, but the bottom line is that you enjoy yourself.  But more than that, you go somewhere and you give joy to people that come to the concert.  If they come out of the hall and they had a good time, they’re coming home happy.  Whenever you give them some joy, it’s absolutely wonderful.  Often people come to see you in the dressing room
people you never met beforeand they will tell you that they had a difficult day or they had problems with the family, and they decided to go to a concert and it was so wonderful to hear.  It’s wonderful to be able to give joy to people all round the world.  I think that’s the only purpose.

BD:    Do you play new scores also?

J-YT:    I don’t play a lot of contemporary music, but recently for some reason I’ve been doing a couple of very interesting projects.  The bottom line, again, is just to enjoy myself.  If I find a new piece that I like and I enjoy and I have a good time, then I’ll play it right away.  But for some reason there are very few of those.  It is just a matter of taste.

BD:    What advice would you have for somebody who wants to write for your piano technique?

J-YT:    I don’t know.  It’s not really technique because you can always work around something and learn a piece.  For me it’s just a matter of emotion.  Something will give me an emotion when I play it or when I hear it, and if it doesn’t, then I don’t see the point to learn it.  It’s really it’s just the emotion when you hear something.  It can be very modern but give you something you feel something.  If I don’t feel it, then I think it’s a miss, just lost for me.  I’m not looking to spend time learning something that doesn’t make me feel.  I cannot expect to give joy to people if I don’t even enjoy myself in the beginning.

BD:    You have to be convinced?

J-YT:    I have to be convinced myself to be able to convince other people, absolutely.

BD:    You went through a number of competitions.  Is competition really the way to go for a young pianist?

J-YT:    It does help unfortunately.  It’s a very difficult way to go, but there are so many artists around that it’s really does help.  I don’t mean that if you do a competition and make a career, it’s not natural at all.  But it does help to get your name around in the beginning at least.  There’s two ways to look at it.  There are some people who are making wonderful careers and never did a competition, and some others that won a big competition and just never have a career.  They have it for two years, and then they’re worn out and they just die.  This is the problem of the big competitions in that they take people that have no career and overnight they become very famous.  They expect to play two hundred concerts in the next two years, and if they’re not ready they won’t survive.  It’s actually very difficult to survive.  I don’t think I would have survived if it happened to me at a very young age, and that’s the problem.  You have to be so careful about the repertoire.  It’s just very, very difficult, and it’s very dangerous.  In some ways maybe it would be best not to win it completely.  Just to be in the finals and let some people hear you might gain for you a couple of concerts.  If you feel that you’re ready, then it’s great, but you have to be really ready when you go there.  You have to have a really big repertoire for all the concerts coming in, and you have good health and good energy and good nervous system.  It’s really difficult.


BD:    How do you guard against this burning out?

thibaudet J-YT:    I never had that problem.  I’ve been very, very lucky in my career because it all went slowly, just gradually.  I was kept going up on a line step by step.  I never went suddenly, so that’s why I feel so very confident.  I never had to suddenly jump ten steps at one point.  I did competitions, but not like the Van Cliburn.  It was a big one in Tokyo and a more little one in Italy.  Then the Young Concert Artists auditions in New York, which are absolutely fabulous.  That’s one of the most unique organizations in the world.  They start your career but they just give you a debut in New York and Washington and Los Angeles.  Then it just comes gradually, not suddenly where they give you a hundred concerts in a year.  So that was perfect for me.  Then came the recording contracts, and things just kept adding.  So I never really had this feeling of being pushed, and having to prove something.  That’s the advice I would give — sometimes you would like to have things happening right away once you do competitions, but you have to be patient.  In the long run it’s very much more rewarding.

BD:    So you’re trying to pace yourself for a long career?

J-YT:    That’s what everyone would like.  What is the point of playing all around the world for five years and then be retired until your old age?  It doesn’t make any sense.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  You want to be another Horszowski and play until you are 100?  [Mieczysław Horszowski was born June 23, 1892, and his final performance took place in Philadelphia in October 1991.  He died in that city a month before his 101st birthday, and he gave his final lesson a week before his death.]

J-YT:    [Laughs]  I don’t know if I’ll go that long, but we’ll see.  If I’m healthy, I would love to.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Do you have any other advice for young pianists coming along?

J-YT:    It’s always difficult to give advice to people.  In general, that’s even more important for parents than for the children.  If we speak to children, sometimes you see really that the parents are pushing some of them to play.  It’s not advice, but it’s like a rule for everyone
whatever the age, whatever you doyou really have to love it to a point where it is part of you and you can’t live without it.  Otherwise you shouldn’t go for a career, because it’s so difficult.  There are so many musicians around, and it’s a lot of sacrifices as well.  You really have to be sure that it is the thing you want to do in your life, and that means you live with it every day and every night.  You must play all those concerts and then practice, and if it is not something you enjoy, then you should forget about it right away, because otherwise it’s a waste of time.

BD:    Are there too many pianists trying to make a career?

J-YT:    It’s difficult to say. There are a lot of pianists.  There are some pianists that should have a career and they don’t, but not always.  You wonder why some people just don’t.  It’s very interesting to see this.  There are so many things involved in making a career now.  It’s not only the talent that makes the rules.  Talent is part of it, definitely, but there’s so many other things with record companies and all the publicity.  In our century now, it’s a big part of personality.  There’s so much on the TV and video and all that.  The charisma and the personality of the artist becomes very, very important.  If you have someone who has more talent but doesn’t want to give any interviews and is completely closed to himself for some reason, it will be very difficult to make it
which is unfortunate because it has nothing to do with the talent.  It’s just part of the way we live now.  It’s not show business, but it’s just part of the way we’re living in the twentieth century.

BD:    In music, where’s the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

J-YT:    It’s very difficult to say.  Being an artist, I think it’s a question to ponder.  As far as I’m concerned, the all important thing is the artistic value, the artistic point.  When you play, give the best of yourself.  Now, I just happen also to always love to meet people and speak with people since I was a little boy, so it’s nothing to do with the career.  But it does help to have an easy character, to be able to meet people easily.  Some people just can’t.  They can’t explain it; it’s just part of their sensitivity, and they have difficulties meeting people and speaking with them.  They just don’t like it, and you cannot blame them for that.  But unfortunately right now if you don’t do it, it doesn’t make it easy for managers to sell you if you just play your concert and then you go home and disappear.  It’s very difficult. 

BD:    Do you feel that you are a commodity?

J-YT:    No, I don’t feel that.  It just happens that I enjoy those kinds of things after the concert.  Sometimes I don’t, and then one night I feel I don’t want to see people.  It just happens, but you also have to understand the point of the presenters and the orchestras.  In this country, where everything is sponsored privately, they need the sponsors to give them the money.   So after the concerts the sponsors like to meet the artist.  What does it cost an artist to go for half an hour to a reception after the concert?  It’s really nothing, and you know it means so much for the presenter.  It means maybe they will have a bigger budget, and it’s good for you too.  You’re going to enjoy it as much as they do, so you have to really to help them as much as you can.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is playing the piano fun?

thibaudet J-YT:    Wonderful fun!  That’s what I was saying; that’s the only way I would do it.  If it wasn’t fun, I’d be doing something else.  It’s marvelous and I just enjoy it.  I couldn’t live without it.  It doesn’t mean that I have to do it all the time.  I need vacations with no piano as well, so when I come back to the piano, I like it even better because I missed it so much!

BD:    You’re playing this concert on Bastille Day.  Is that special to play French music on that day?

J-YT:    Of course.  I’m a French person, and for me it’s a very special day.  So we have a French conductor, French music, and it’s going to be a real French celebration!

BD:    Wouldn’t it be better if you were in Paris?

J-YT:    It would be even better to be in Paris, but why not do it all around the world?  That’s fine. 

BD:    Bring Paris to us!

J-YT:    That’s right.  A part of Paris can be in Chicago!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Thank you for coming to Chicago.  You’ve been here before; are you coming back again?

J-YT:    I’m sure I’ll be back soon.  For whatever purpose, I’m sure I’ll be back here.

BD:    Do you like being booked so far ahead?

J-YT:    We just have to deal with it.  It’s kind of a strange feeling to know that on the 3rd of December of next year you’re going to be in Lisbon, or whatever.  It’s just the way it goes.  You have no choice now, so we just live with it, you get used to it. 

BD:    Do all the dates come up too quickly?  You’ve planned something well in advance, and all of a sudden it’s there?

J-YT:    Oh yes, it happens to me all of the time.  It’s horrible because you see this date far ahead with a new concerto and you say, “Oh well, I will learn it.  I’ve got plenty of time!”  Then all the other things come in between, and you arrive a month before and you see haven’t started to learn the dumb piece.  It really does happen very, very quickly.  Time goes so fast, and you just don’t see it.  You have really to look in your schedule a long time in advance and see what’s coming up, and say, “I’ve got to learn this.  I’ve got to have this ready!”  If you don’t look at it seriously, you really can wind up struggling, and that’s a horrible feeling.

BD:    I hope most of it is not horrible!

J-YT:    No, no, no!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Good!  Thank you for coming back to Chicago, and for speaking with me.

J-YT:    You’re welcome. 

Jean-Yves Thibaudet

One of today’s most sought-after soloists, Jean-Yves Thibaudet has the rare ability to combine poetic musical sensibilities and dazzling technical prowess. His talent at coaxing subtle and surprising colors and textures from each work he plays led The New York Times to write that “every note he fashions is a pearl…the joy, brilliance and musicality of his performance could not be missed.” Thibaudet, who brings natural charisma and remarkable musical depth to his career, has performed around the world for more than 30 years and recorded more than 50 albums.


Jean-Yves Thibaudet's 2014-2015 season is an intriguing combination of a wide variety of music: a balance of orchestral appearances, chamber music, and recitals and a repertoire that includes familiar pieces, unfamiliar work by well-known composers, and new compositions. He also follows his passion for education and fostering the next generation of performers by becoming the first-ever resident artist at the Colburn School of Los Angeles this year and the following two. Summer 2014 sees him touring with Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, the Edinburgh International Festival, the Lucerne Festival, and the Ljubljana Festival. Mr. Thibaudet then travels to play Gershwin paired with a new piano concerto “Er Huang” by Quigang Chen with Long Yu conducting to open the China Philharmonic season in Beijing—a program both artists will repeat in Paris with the Orchestre de Paris. In October, with the Philadelphia Orchestra and its Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, he performs the Khachaturian Piano Concerto, which he also plays in the spring with the Cincinnati Symphony and on tour in Germany and Austria with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under the baton of Tugan Sohkiev. After concerts in Prague, Mr. Thibaudet embarks on a US tour with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in November, reaching both East and West coasts with a grand finale at Carnegie Hall, where he performs Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2. The end of the year is a whirlwind of Gershwin, Ravel, and Liszt with the Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart, the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne.

In the new year, audiences can hear Mr. Thibaudet play MacMillan’s Piano Concerto No. 3, which he premiered in 2011, with the St. Louis Symphony and New York Philharmonic, both conducted by Stéphane Denève, and then Liszt with the Cleveland Orchestra and the Naples Philharmonic. After playing a duo recital with Gautier Capuçon in his native France at the Festival de Pâques in Aix-en-Provence, Mr. Thibaudet returns to the United States to play Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major—one of his signature pieces from the French repertoire for which he is renowned—with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Bernard Haitink's direction, in addition to Poulenc and Fauré with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players. Under Michael Tilson's Thomas's baton, he performs Bernstein's Age of Anxiety in San Francisco, where he celebrates Thomas's 70th birthday earlier in the year by playing the Liszt Hexaméron with Emanuel Ax, Jeremy Denk, Yuja Wang, and Marc-André Hamelin. Mr. Thibaudet performs Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic before interpreting both the Ravel Piano Concerto and Messiaen's Turangalîla with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen as part of the orchestra's 2015 Reveries and Passions Festival. He then travels to Europe to perform with the Frankfurter Museumsorchester (Venzago), Dresden Philharmonic (de Billy), and the Munich Philharmonic (Bychkov), among others, before ending the season in dramatic fashion with Beethoven's Choral Fantasy with the Orchestre de L’Opéra de Paris under the baton of Music Director Philippe Jordan.

thibaudet A distinguished recording artist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet has been nominated for two Grammy Awards and won the Schallplattenpreis, the Diapason d'Or, Choc du Monde de la Musique, a Gramophone Award, two Echo awards, and the Edison Prize. In 2010 he released Gershwin, featuring big jazz band orchestrations of Rhapsody in Blue, variations on “I Got Rhythm,” and Concerto in F live with the Baltimore Symphony and music director Marin Alsop [photo of CD at left]. On his Grammy-nominated recording Saint-Saëns, Piano Concerti Nos. 2&5, released in 2007, Thibaudet is joined by long-standing collaborator Charles Dutoit and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Thibaudet's Aria—Opera Without Words, which was released the same year, features transcriptions of arias by Saint-Saëns, R. Strauss, Gluck, Korngold, Bellini, J. Strauss II, Grainger, and Puccini; some of the transcriptions are by Mikhashoff, Sgambati, and Brassin, and others are Thibaudet's own. Among his other recordings are Satie: The Complete Solo Piano Music and the jazz albums Reflections on Duke: Jean-Yves Thibaudet Plays the Music of Duke Ellington and Conversations With Bill Evans, his tribute to two of jazz history's legends.

Known for his style and elegance on and off the traditional concert stage, Thibaudet has had an impact on the world of fashion, film and philanthropy. His concert wardrobe is by celebrated London designer Vivienne Westwood. In 2004 he served as president of the prestigious Hospices de Beaune, an annual charity auction in Burgundy, France. He had an onscreen cameo in the Bruce Beresford feature film on Alma Mahler, Bride of the Wind, and his playing is showcased throughout the soundtrack. Thibaudet was the soloist on Dario Marianelli’s Oscar- and Golden Globe-award winning score for the film Atonement and his Oscar-nominated score for Pride and Prejudice. He recorded the soundtrack of the 2012 film Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, composed by Alexandre Desplat. He was also featured in the 2000 PBS/Smithsonian special Piano Grand!, a piano performance program hosted by Billy Joel to pay tribute to the 300th anniversary of the piano.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet was born in Lyon, France, where he began his piano studies at age five and made his first public appearance at age seven. At twelve, he entered the Paris Conservatory to study with Aldo Ciccolini and Lucette Descaves, a friend and collaborator of Ravel. At age fifteen, he won the Premier Prix du Conservatoire and, three years later, the Young Concert Artists Auditions in New York City. In 2001 the Republic of France awarded Thibaudet the prestigious Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and in 2002 he was awarded the Premio Pegasus from the Spoleto Festival in Italy for his artistic achievements and his long-standing involvement with the festival. In 2007 he received the Victoire d'Honneur, a lifetime career achievement award and the highest honor given by France's Victoires de la Musique. The Hollywood Bowl honored Thibaudet for his musical achievements by inducting him into its Hall of Fame in 2010. Previously a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Thibaudet was promoted to the title of Officier by the French Minister of Culture in 2012.

(As of September 2, 2014)

--  Note: Names which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD 

© 1993 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on July 12, 1993.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1996 and 1999.  This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.