The CultureMap Interview

A Frenchman in red socks: Jean-Yves Thibaudet defies convention and those damn penguin suits

A Frenchman in red socks: Jean-Yves Thibaudet defies convention and those damn penguin suits

Joel, Jean-Yves Thibaudet interview, November 2012
Jean-Yves Thibaudet Photo courtesy of IMG Artists

At 51 years old, Jean-Yves Thibaudet is everywhere classical music is. In album recordings, in the movies, on the Internet, in large concert halls and in intimate recital rooms.

Thibaudet will be in Houston to perform an all-Debussy recital hosted by the Society for the Performing Arts Thursday night. It will include Préludes, Deuxième Livre, Suite Bergamasque, Estampes and L'Isle joyeuse, works that have been in his muscle memory for most of his musical life.

"Encores, which I say it's the best part of the recital, like dessert, especially those delightful petits fours cakes, I'm prepared with lots of lovely tunes." 

CultureMap spoke with Thibaudet, who was comfortably enjoying a morning in San Francisco prior to an evening recital. He chatted about French Impressionism, life on the road, fashion and his long-term relationship with his partner Paul.

CultureMap: It's been roughly 12 years since you released the last installment of your Complete Piano Works of Debussy series. For listeners like myself, an album becomes an archive, a permanent record of your style. But for you, I assume it's how you felt about the music at that time.

Has your interpretation changed since then?

Jean-Yves Thibaudet: I rarely listen to my recordings unless I have a reason. Sometimes it's for pure curiosity or when friends play them. A recording is like a snapshot. It's like taking a picture of a person at one exact moment in life. The photo is what you are at the time, so that's what you record. 

The next day you'll play differently; the next year you'll play differently. Music constant evolution. We are human beings — not robots. And that's why it's quite remarkable. The differences are quite beautiful. To see how your take has matured — or whatever you want to call that — is fascinating.

CM: Right, because "maturing" doesn't necessarily mean better.

JYT: I think what happens, in general, is that the skeleton, the framework, the architecture, the main ideas really have not changed that much; unless I thought  I was completely wrong with something — which also happens.

 "Why would I have to look like a stupid penguin because that's how things are? That's just ridiculous."  

Now, there are a lot of things in the interpretation that can change because you change as a person. You experience life — good, bad, happy, sad — all of the things that makes a person interesting. That's why the interpretation can change.

Though I still discover in pieces that I've played all my life — even those that I've learned seriously in meticulous detail — elements that I've never noticed before.

CM: Like what?

JYT: Yesterday I found a new marking in La soirée dans Grenade. It's not that what I was doing was wrong — no one would've noticed the difference, really. But I know. Now that I am paying attention to one more detail in the score, I am really excited to perform it again.

You live with the compositions, you put them aside, you play them again — they have their own lifecycle.

CM: When I think of French classical music, I think of Ravel, Franck, Debussy. As a society that's currently somewhat obsessed with authenticity and "going back to the roots," does your French provenance help you interpret Debussy's music more authentically? 

JYT: There are two ways to look at it. Much more than having a French passport — because you can be of French nationality and spend all your life in Tokyo — what "French" means is having spent time in France immersed in French culture and French tradition to understand French sensitivities.

Then there's certainly your course of study and who your teachers were. It's not like it was before when there was national piano schools. It's much more global now because people travel so much and people have access to the Internet. But in my case, one of my teachers at the Paris Conservatory was Madame (Lucette) Descaves (goddaugther of Camille Saint-Saëns). She grew up in the tradition of French music and collaborated with Ravel.

But after that, I studied with teachers with German and international music backgrounds, including Aldo Ciccolini.

Funny enough, I just played a Debussy recital in Moscow. The listeners said that they don't hear Debussy often. So maybe it's true that they may not hear as much Debussy as we hear in Paris. They may have more Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich. 

Though at the end of the day, it's just my personal affinity to Debussy: It's more about tradition and culture rather than nationality.

CM: Will there be unscripted moments that deviate from the all Debussy program? Sometimes in solo recitals, there's the program, and then there's what really happens.

JYT: It's not like in jazz where I could change things around, though I wish it could be at times. The rigidity in the form of classical recitals makes me wonder: Why does it have to be so?

But I thought about this program for a long time and I think it's very well put together. I love it, so I don't think I'll change anything from what's printed, because no one would be happy. But during the encores, which I say it's the best part of the recital, like dessert, especially those delightful petits fours cakes, I'm prepared with lots of lovely tunes.

The rule is: Something fun, something different. 

CM: You've collaborated with many terrific artists. Among my favorites are Joshua Bell, Renée Fleming, a recording with Paula Robison . . . 

JYT: Lowell Liebermann's Sonata?

CM: That's it. A wicked piece.

JYT: Fantastic piece.

CM: Personally I love the live recital recording with Cecilia Bartoli. Has there been anyone who has influenced you greatly or altered your artistic journey?

JYT: They all did, just like anyone important who you meet in your life. I've learned from each of them lots of things. As a soloist, I love collaborations, because if all I did was solo, I would be bored and wouldn't survive for too long. It's a real privilege to work with these type of artists.

CM: Fashion and personal style is obviously important to you. You often wear your signature red socks, you appear on stage with the couture of Vivienne Westwood and I noticed that a couple of years back you highlighted your hair blonde.

JYT: I've loved fashion since I was a little boy. I met a lot of designers when I was a teenager, went to a lot of shows — and fashion became a part of my life.

I think that fashion is also important because of how classical music is viewed as rigid and old fashioned. Why is it that men are relegated to wearing tails, which are more than 300 years old, and ladies can wear dramatic gowns and have costume changes at every break? And why would I have to look like a stupid penguin because that's how things are? That's just ridiculous.

So I decided many years ago to change that. I don't know if what I do influences others, but it makes me very happy. Rigid clothes just give the wrong impression of classical music, dusty, old and boring. People can relate to you more in clothes that they can identify with. 

CM: And hair?

JYT: Why do we have to have that musician haircut — which means no haircut at all?

It's not superficial, though some may say it is. It's who I am. And if it helps the image of classical music, great. I want people to know I am just like anyone. I like to go out, I like to have a drink, get together with friends. Classical musicians aren't a bunch of "grandparents."

CM: OK. So tails are out. Then what it is about Vivienne Westwood that you love?

JYT: She is not only an icon and a legend, she's an artist and an amazing person. She's a visionary artist who's 10 years ahead of everybody else — and everyone copies her. She's incredibly modern.

We met and we hit it off immediately. A few months later, I asked if she would do special clothes for me for the Last Night of the Proms in London. She agreed with pleasure, and since then we've done lots of things together. She also loves music and attends many concerts in London. So it's a fantastic relationship, and I admire what she is doing.

CM: You are still with your partner Paul? How many years now?

JYT:  Something like 18 years.

CM: With your busy travel schedule, how do you make it work?

JYT: It's a difficult life for a traveling artist, whether you are single, married, straight, gay, whatever you happen to be. It's not the normal life where you come home every night. You have to find your own balance and do what's good for your relationship. In our case, Paul has his own life.

He travels with me sometimes. When I perform in places he likes or wants to explore, he joins me. He doesn't follow me around like others may do. It's just not how we work.

Everyone should have their independence and find something that works for them.


The Society for the Performing Arts presents Jean-Yves Thibaudet in recital, Thursday at 8 p.m. at Jones Hall. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased online or by calling 713-227-4772.