Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Concert Pianist
A child prodigy who gave his first concert at seven, Jean-Yves Thibaudet can barely remember what it was like not to travel. He was born in Lyon, France of extremely musical parents but has spent a good part of his 44 years on on the road, first in competitions, and today in concerts and recordings, where he is one of the most sought after musicians on the planet.
Known for his poetically strong interpretations, and extensive "vocabulary of luminous colors and passionate sound," he is acclaimed by the press as "one of the great pianists of our time." The list of singers Renee Fleming, Cecilia Bartoli, Angelika Kirchschlager who want to collaborate with him is growing almost as fast as his popularity. But it is more than raw talent and dashing good looks that accounts for this Frenchman's ability to universally touch the hearts of others.
Here is Jean-Yves Thibaudet as himself with Margie Goldsmith.
MARGIE GOLDSMITH: You finished the Mostly Mozart Series in New York, then you played at Saratoga with the Philadelphia Orchestra, before leaving for a concert in Spain. How many weeks out of the year do you travel?
JEAN-YVES THIBAUDET: I would say probably nine months.
MG: Do you take your piano with you?
JT: No, very rarely. It's a bulky luggage thing. I do for special concerts at Carnegie Hall or when I have a recording or special tours, but other than that, luckily for me, there are usually good pianos in halls now.
MG: When you're on tour, is it hard adjusting to a new environment? Not just the theater, the locations, your piano, and the musicians, but what's around you: the food, the language, the customs, the ambiance.
JT: The hardest thing in the life of a pianist is that every night I have a different piano. It's not fair, in a way, compared to violinists or flutists, who bring their own instruments. At least they have that friend with them constantly. I still have to make friends every night with a new piano that I don't know. As far as environment, I've been traveling since I was kid, so I have absolutely no problem with that. I'm a very curious person in every way. I'm quite difficult with food, but I'm willing to try once. I'm always interested in discovering new traditions, new cultures, new food, new places.
MG: Do you have any time just to travel for travel's sake?
JT: After all my touring, the last thing I want to do when I'm on vacation is take another plane for ten hours; but this being said, if I have enough time, two or three weeks, I will do it. I take vacations every year. If it's December, and I'm in Europe, then I don't have to go far because it's beautiful right there, but if it's winter, and I want to get some sun, then I will definitely take a plane and go.
MG: As an artist, do you draw your inspiration from a place, or does a composition remind you of a place? How does that work for you?
JT: Inspiration comes from a lot of things. Every human being, we're just made with a lot of different things in us. Some evenings, you play something better, more inspired than another evening. It comes from the theater, the recital hall, from the place you are, from the lunch you had or the people you were with so many factors, it's very difficult to pin them down. At the moment of the concert, when you actually perform, you're so concentrated that you hardly think of anything else. You're in your music so much that you're somewhere else. I wouldn't even know what I'm thinking about because I'm so in it that I don't even remember what happened.
MG: Do you think that certain composers were inspired by places or by landscapes?
JT: Oh, definitely. It's funny you say that because last night I performed the Grieg Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Grieg is certainly one of those composers. To understand his music, you have to go Norway and see the nature, because this guy was completely inspired by nature, the beauty of the landscapes. I've been there many times, and actually went to his house. He had little huts in the garden where he was composing. There is a beautiful lake and trees, and it's so peaceful. When you listen to his music, I think the simplicity of it is really close to nature. It's always interesting to see where those people were when they wrote a piece. In the case of Liszt, I've been to quite a few places where he was composing, and it certainly was a huge inspiration. I mean, there really is something about the calm of a place or the view that had to be part of it.
MG: Did you actually go to Norway to see how Grieg was inspired for you to be able to interpret the piece?
JT: Well, I didn't go just for that. I was there for a concert and then I chose to go to Troldhaugen, his house. I always go the extra mile to see a composer or to see where a writer lived or where a painter lived or visit a museum, if the house is a museum. I think this is terribly important, and very enriching. You feel so much closer to the person even if you never met them. You feel that you touched a little part of them, and I think it's important later when you interpret the music, to understand what they were writing about or what they were painting about.
MG: What three things make a destination memorable to you?
JT: The first thing I'm looking for when I have some free time, especially somewhere I've never been to, is what's going on in the town. I'm extremely interested in museums. I love the opera, so if I'm in town performing and I have a night off, I will go to the opera or to a concert. People sometimes can't understand this. They assume that the last thing you want to do is to go to someone else's concert, but, actually, I really enjoy it. If there's a colleague playing or conducting or singing, chances are that I'm going to be there.
MG: What else makes a destination memorable?
JT: I love shopping. If I have an afternoon free, which often happens the day of performance, I usually have a nice lunch somewhere, and then do a little bit of shopping. I love malls, especially in the States, they're so much fun. I just walk around and look in the shops. I don't always have to buy anything, but I just think it's important to mingle with local people, especially when you go somewhere far away, like Asia. It's wonderful to be with the crowd. Many people travel thousands of miles, and then they stay in their hotel all day long, eat at McDonald's, and do things that they do at home. What's the point to even go? Just stay at home. When I go away, I like to go into the little streets where the local people are, to the little bars, just to discover. It's like an adventure, you know?
MG: Do you keep a journal?
JT: Unfortunately, I don't, and this is really a shame, because I've been to so many places, I've done so many things. I'm bad enough with e-mails and the fax, so the last thing I need is to write a journal, even though it probably wouldn't take that long. I really regret that I haven't done it.
MG: Especially when some day your publisher wants you to write your memoirs, and you can't remember them.
JT: Oh, God. Well, I mean, I'm touching wood, but I'm quite good, I have quite a good memory. I've been lucky to do so many wonderful things and go to so many amazing places. It's difficult. We're very busy with the rehearsals, practicing, interviews, luncheons, dinners, whatever. When I come back to my hotel room, usually after the concert, dinner, and the party at 2 A.M., I'm tired. The last thing I do is I put the TV on, or read a book, and after three pages, I fall asleep.
MG: Describe a humbling experience during one of your trips.
JT: Humbling experience. Every hour we have a humbling experience. I think what's important is to put the priorities in the right place. We are all very demanding. First of all, we performers are a very privileged people. We have a wonderful life. In my case, as an artist, I have even more of a privileged life. I do what I love the most and get paid for it. I go to wonderful places, stay in wonderful hotels, am received by wonderful people. I can't really complain about it. Yet, every day of your life, you always complain about something this is not the seat you want in the plane, this is not the room you want in the hotel. I think it's important to put things back in perspective. When you see all the horrible things that are happening in the world, whether it's about the war, disease, poverty. It's hard to accept and to understand. You realize that really, there's nothing wrong with your life, and you can survive with that seat that you don't like in the plane, and that room that doesn't have the view you want. At the end of the day, those things are really not very important.
MG: It's been said that different places, especially where a second language is concerned, bring out different parts of our personality. In what country are you most unlike the way you are in France?
JT: I've traveled since I was a kid, so I feel that I'm very international, kind of a citizen of the world. I have a French passport, but I haven't been a resident in France for 20 years. I'm a resident of the United States, and my mother is German, and I grew up in all kind of places. I have American friends who live in Paris and they're laughing at me. They think I'm much more American than they are, and in a way, it's true, because I've spent more than half of my life in this country. I'm a very flexible person, I speak four languages fluently.
MG: German, French, English. . .
JT: Italian. Yes, and the one that I really need to work on is Spanish, which I understand almost perfectly, but speak very badly. I think if you have those five languages, you can survive just about anywhere in the world. Whenever I go somewhere, the first thing I want to learn is a couple of words, so I can ask things in a restaurant, and just feel closer to people and show them that I'm making an effort. I pick up languages very quickly. I wouldn't say I speak any fluently. The minute I arrive somewhere, I feel very comfortable, and very much at home. I love traveling and hotels. Some people tell me, oh, my God, how do you do it, I can only sleep in my own bed! If I could only sleep in my own bed, I would only sleep one month out of the year. I can sleep anywhere. That's a real blessing.
MG: If you believe that Montesquieu was correct in assuming that climates influence cultures and personalities, then what degree of latitude best describes you?
JT: Oh, definitely the sun, the summer, the beaches. I'm more of a southern person. What proves it is that after living in New York for ten years, I moved to Los Angeles. I always said that Southern California is the only place I would like to live. Since I moved there eight years ago, I couldn't think of living anywhere else in the world. I just adore the climate. To me, it's not just the weather, but the sun. I need to have the sun. I like the warm weather. I'm not at all a winter person. I don't like the mountains in the winter. I don't ski, I don't like snow, I don't like the cold, so I'm definitely the sunny side of the world.
MG: What is your sign?
JT: Virgo. Virgo and Virgo.
MG: If you were in Paris, dining with an American couple or a German couple who complained to you that the menu was entirely in French, what would you say?
JT: You know, people don't complain. Actually, when I'm in France, I'm the one who complains, because I think a lot of things should be changed. My friends are usually happy. You know what I would say? I would just translate for them. I would just help them out. [laughter]
MG: [laughter] Okay.
JT: Which I end up doing very often.
MG: Describe two things that you dislike most about American tourists, and what you like best about them.
JT: I'm a very pro-American person, but sometimes, American people, when they travel abroad, speak very loud. This being said, Italians do too, Germans do also. In a Paris restaurant, if you hear somebody at a table who is really loud, laughing loud and speaking loud, it's true that often it's an American tourist, but, it's not really fair to make a general statement like that. Other than that, American tourists have to tendency to stay in groups together, which, in a way, I understand; they're in a different country, they don't know anything, it's a different territory. If you go to McDonald's in Paris, chances are 75% of the people there are American tourists. I think it's a shame to go to France just to look for the comfort that they're used to having.
MG: Mm hm.
JT: But I can't completely blame them. The first time I went to Japan, in 1980, I arrived in Tokyo with my mother for a competition. In those days it was a real treat, a real adventure to be on this flight for 20 hours. We arrived completely jet-lagged, tired, and hungry. We saw all this strange Japanese food, and we're, like, oh, my God, we're not going to eat any of that! Suddenly, across from the hotel, we saw a McDonald's. I said to my mother, let's go there and have something nice. So the first night in Tokyo, we went to the McDonald's across from the hotel, and we had a lovely meal. So, I can't really blame American tourists.
MG: When you pack for a trip, what three things do you take with you?
JT: Three things. My God, I wish I was taking three things with me.
JT: Three big suitcases, that's what I take with me. I have a very strange relation with packing. It's probably the only thing I hate about traveling, and about my life packing and unpacking. I always joke and say I'd love to have a little slave to do my packing and unpacking. Wouldn't that be nice? Unfortunately, I have to deal with it every day. I think I'm excellent at it by now. I know very well how to do a suitcase. My only problem is whether I go for a week or for three months, I take just as many things.
MG: Are there things you can't live without, such as an i-Pod or a computer or a Blackberry? Teddy bear?
JT: No teddy bear, I don't travel with him anymore. I don't go anywhere without my laptop, because that's my only way to keep in touch with the world. I'm quite addicted to telephones. I have a number of telephones, and several different numbers in different countries, because I travel a lot. Chances are you're always going to see me with at least one or two telephones in my hand. Other than that, just clothes. I need to have a lot of clothes because I love to change, and it's important to me. It goes with my image, and I think people are expecting that from me, and I just enjoy doing it; so, unfortunately, I always have a lot of luggage, and I need to have a lot. I can't help it. I need to feel at home since I'm never at home, which means the minute I arrive in a hotel room, I take all my things out of my suitcase. I need to organize everything neatly. That's my German side.
MG: If you were the guest of a municipal leader in China, and he offered you dog at a formal dinner, would you accept or decline gracefully?
JT: Decline gracefully, and I've done that very often. I've been invited by heads of state queens or kings. If I don't like something, I'm very sorry, but I'm not going to eat it. I think people in the old days couldn't do that, but I still have my limit. Also, I'm on a very special diet, because I travel a lot. For those kind of dinners, we give a heads-up in advance and explain what I don't eat, so, hopefully, those kind of things will not happen. If they do happen, I will very gracefully find a reason. I think you have to respect what people are giving you, but just tell them, I'm not feeling well today, or I'm not hungry. But I will not force myself to eat something I don't like.
MG: What is the question about your job you dread being asked the most?
JT: The question that I just don't have any answer for is, who is your favorite composer? It's like, what is your favorite food? There are so many wonderful composers. So my answer usually is, my favorite piece or favorite composer is the one I'm going to be performing tonight, which is true. At the moment I perform it, it's my favorite. I have to share with you one question that doesn't get asked too often, but which really cracks me up. Once in awhile somebody will ask, when you don't play the piano, what is actually your job, what do you do in life? You know, where is your office? I just don't know what to say.
MG: Do you believe that music is the universal language?
JT: Definitely. I say it all the time. Music is the only thing in the world right now, especially with all the things that are happening in the world, the only thing that's peaceful, that has no politics, no language, no barriers. It's the only way to go and speak directly to the heart and soul of the people. You play, you give them an emotion, and they're moved. Wherever you go in the world, you know that you can always sit down at the piano, play something for them, and you'll speak to them directly without having to say words.
MG: Do you think that one's understanding of a culture is enhanced by exposure to their music?
JT: I think it probably was in the old days, but I think now everything has become so internationalized. It has become so global that people are aware of every kind of music. I think we've lost a lot of the real tradition. For example, in 1980, I would take the subway in Tokyo. You would see a lot of women wearing kimonos. 25 years later, if you're lucky, you see one lady in a kimono in the street, but only for special parties. Now they dress in with jeans and T-shirts. I think we've gone global a lot around the world, and the same goes for music. People are exposed to every kind of music, even in China. The doors are open to everything. It's sad, in a way, because I think people have lost a little bit of their roots and their tradition.
MG: Can you cite an example of cultural insights you have acquired because of your exposure to music and your travels, you know, whether it's Portugal or India or Japan?
JT: Well, everywhere, every day of my life. When I go to another country, I'm always looking, going out to special bars where there will be music playing. If I'm in Argentina, I'll go to the real tango -- not the touristic -- but the real tango places where the Argentinean people go. If I'm in Portugal, I'll look for Fado houses. I think it's important to find these roots, because that's what makes them different from other countries. When I'm in Brazil I adore Brazil music I will go out and listen to those musicians. Sometimes they're even in the streets, and I'll stop and just listen to local people playing. You learn from that. I think the human brain is like a sponge, and you are exposed to so many different things, even if you don't realize it, they just stay in your brain somehow, and they come out in different ways, at different moments. All those experiences that I've had playing jazz, playing all kinds of things, come out somehow. It's just opening different doors in your brain. It's really fantastic. I'm a very curious person about music, and I never have enough. I want to listen to every kind of music. I'm always open to an experience.
MG: As a pianist, you've been called the master of color and nuance. Is this a sensitivity you have acquired in your travels?
JT: No, I don't think so. When I play, I don't think about something I saw in India. I'm sure, somehow, it is part of it, and it's all adding up, like an experience that you get with age. I know it's there, it's part of the big picture.
MG: What's the next adventure for you down the road?
JT: Well, that's the thing, as an adventurer there's no limit, and you never arrive anywhere. It's not like somebody climbing a mountain once you've climbed the Everest, where else can you climb? I know my life will not be 150 years long, which still wouldn't be enough to do all things I want to do, go to all the places I've never been. There are so many countries, so many cultures I'm interested in discovering, so much music I want to play. I think what is really beautiful is that we have never achieved anything, even in music. You know you can always play better. There are pieces that I have played for 25 years, and I still discover new things and know that I'm still improving. We're always trying to reach for something higher, something better, and that's really fascinating. There's actually no limit. The world is so big that you can only think of the next place you're going to go. It's absolutely wonderful.
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