Q&A with Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet: Life Offstage in Hollywood and on Tour
Jean-Yves Thibaudet has made a name for himself on the global classical music scene as a concert pianist with artistry and flare. He’ll be adding that panache to upcoming performances of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, "The Age of Anxiety," in Hamburg, Vienna, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem when he travels with the Philadelphia Orchestra on its tour of Europe and Israel.
Thibaudet has a home in Los Angeles, where he’s also part of the Hollywood film scene. It’s his playing you’ve heard on the soundtracks of movies such as Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, to name a few.
WRTI's Susan Lewis talked with him in March, 2018 about his admiration for Bernstein and his other interests, including art museums and his dogs. This is an edited and condensed transcript.
Off the classical concert stage, you explore different kinds of music. You’ve done the jazz-inspired albums Conversations with Bill Evans (1997), and Reflections on the Duke (1999), and you’ve performed soundtracks to movies.
Absolutely. I need that diversity and I’m a very curious person. I don’t compose, but in my way, I do lots of things, as much as a pianist can do: I play chamber music, I play for singers, I’ve played some jazz …and also soundtracks.
I’m fascinated by soundtracks. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for some time now. The movie industry -- in some way, we’re all fascinated by it.
What’s the relationship between a movie and its soundtrack?
[It’s something] I think some people don’t realize, but I think half of the movie is the music. When you see the movie without the music, [and then the music is added] suddenly it becomes alive. So I have the most incredible respect for the composers.
I think sometimes the composers for the movies are a little bit looked upon like second-class citizens. Like they’re not really composers. And I think that’s so ridiculous!
Think of someone like Bernstein—and Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Korngold—everyone was writing for the movies. There’s nothing wrong with that.
And some composers are absolutely phenomenal, and I have great admiration for them. That’s why I love to work with them, and when I have the opportunity to work on a soundtrack, it’s great fun for me.
What is your process when you do a soundtrack?
Well, it's a very, very different process. In fact, almost the opposite of when I perform anything else in my normal life as a soloist. You are the interpreter, of course, but suddenly you are serving the story, and the images.
I can’t do whatever I want, and whatever I feel, at every moment. What I see, I have to create with the sound, to make it happen, and that’s incredible.
Sometimes, we’ll repeat 17, 20, 25 times the same very small sequence until we ‘get it.’ Not only together -- [the synchronization] time is very important --- but also the mood.
The moment you know you got it, it’s unbelievable. I can see in the studio, it’s like silence. Everybody stops. And they say, 'I think we got it!'
Do you watch the movie without music first?
I think half of the movie is the music.
Yes, but I rarely watch the entire thing. But certainly before I record anything, I go in and look at the monitor. They explain where it is in the story. We never do anything in order. You have to immerse yourself in the story. If it's a book, I read the book. It's all very important.
You've been playing the piano since you were about 3 years old.
Technically my first lesson was at 5. I went to the piano when I was 3 -- apparently, I was attracted to it. So the piano has been part of my life since I was 3, you’re right. But I started studying it at 5.
Why do you love the piano?
It's just the most miraculous instrument. The piano feels like having the entire orchestra at your hands. I feel like I can do everything.
I [also] played violin for four years, actually, and it’s a beautiful, but a very difficult instrument. Also I find it very limited. You have only four strings!
After four years of the violin, I said, no, I’m sticking with piano. You feel like king of the world. You can create every color, every dynamic. It's just such a rich instrument.
Is there music you go to when you’re feeling a certain way, to practice or play?
Oh, sure, I think it's like visiting friends. It's like calling a friend and having a conversation, or now -- texting, or whatever it is now, or going on Facebook.
If I’ve memorized the piece, I just sit at the piano and play it, or [if I haven’t] I take the score out of my library and say, 'I feel like playing this.'
It's like eating something. Suddenly you feel like eating a dessert.
You’re playing The Age of Anxiety with the Philadelphia Orchestra on tour. When you’re playing in different cities, do the different audiences affect the performances?
Well, I think everything does. I think, the hall as well. It’s very important: the hall, the acoustics, all of that makes a difference. And of course, I think the atmosphere: being in a different city, a different country, everything.
What do you like to do in your downtime?
I love to read. I love to go to the movies.
I’m always interested in ... the arts, [and in] architecture. I love to venture in a new city, when I’ve never been there. Just walk around and look at things. We’re so lucky to be able to travel so much.
That’s why I say sometimes [touring] is very frustrating. We’re so quickly in the city and you want to do more. You also have to be realistic. We’re tired from the trip. You have to rest in the afternoon. There’s very little time really left.
One of my first things is museums. Whenever I go somewhere, if I have time I immediately go to a museum, if I can carve out one hour of my schedule. Especially one I don’t know, or if it's one I know, I’ll go straight to my favorites.
It's like visiting friends. It’s like visiting France [and thinking] I’m going to that painting, that sculpture. That's fabulous, too. Say, I’m going back to Chicago. I say, ‘Oh, I’ll go to the Arts Institute and say hi to that Monet painting.’ And it's really special.
Do you have pets at home?
Yes, I do. In Los Angeles, I have two dogs. I always say, they’re not really my dogs—I just feel like I’m not there enough.
But one of the most beautiful things that made me feel the best, many years ago, was when somebody who knew what he was talking about told me that dogs don't have a notion of time, which means whether you leave for 5 minutes to go and come right back, or you leave for one month, they don’t know the difference.
And that made me feel so much better. As long as somebody is taking care of them, obviously.
Whether I go to the store for milk or on tour for a month, when I come back, they are just as happy.
Simulcasts of the Philadelphia Orchestra on tour with Thibaudet will be heard in Philadelphia on WRTI 90.1, online at wrti.org, and on WRTI's app from Vienna on June 1 at 3 p.m., Tel Aviv on June 4 at 2:30 p.m., and Jerusalem on June 5 at 2:30 p.m.
The Philadelphia Inquirer’s David Patrick Stearns, who is also a contributor to the radio station, will report from the orchestra’s tour beginning June 1 from Vienna and continuing through June 7 in Israel. His coverage of the Philadelphia Orchestra on Tour is made possible by a partnership between the Inquirer and WRTI.