An admission: I get nervous before interviews with classical musicians. There is a certain aura that hovers around our art form. Composers are held up as geniuses, concert halls as cathedrals of culture, performers as superhuman.
Then pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet answers his phone. I introduce myself, and he laughs, disarming me immediately. There is a genuinely delight in his voice as he shares his love for music, shares his excitement about his new role as as the Jean-Paul and Isabelle Montupet Artist-in-Residence with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
This role allows him to build an intense, year-long relationship with the SLSO, with the local community. He loves the sense of closeness with the orchestra. “You become part of their family,” he says. “That’s what makes it special.”
Each residency is unique, says Jean-Yves. “There is no set mold. It’s tailor-made to that conductor, that orchestra, that city.” In St. Louis, he will play concertos by Ravel and Liszt, perform a solo concert, work on a special Ravel project, and teach masterclasses.
And he will play a concert of chamber music with the musicians of the orchestra. “That’s my favorite part—where you get to know the players personally. And we become really close friends.”
Jean-Yves describes the conversations he had with SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève about the Artist-in-Residence position. “Sometimes we had long discussions—he had some ideas that I resisted—but he’s so persuasive,” Jean-Yves says with a laugh. “And you want to humor him, so I give in—with all my heart, of course!”
The two have known each other, have performed with each other, for almost 20 years. It can be difficult for touring musicians, Jean-Yves says, “to keep relations with our own family. We’re always leaving home and coming back and leaving again.” So they build what he calls “a virtual family” of musician friends.
Jean-Yves trips over himself with enthusiasm to express the closeness he feels with Stéphane: “There was immediately… You know the feeling?…That you have met this person before…You immediately feel the chemistry…”
At his first performance with Stéphane, Jean-Yves performed the two piano concertos by Maurice Ravel. Both works are now part of his SLSO residency. “My relationship with Ravel is unique and important,” Jean-Yves says. “He has always been part of my repertoire.”
As an eleven-year-old, Jean-Yves won the opportunity to perform with orchestra for the first time. He told his teacher, “I want to play the Ravel G major Concerto.” His teacher said no. He asked the next week. The answer was no. Jean-Yves, passionate about Ravel at this young age, insisted. Eventually, she relented.
Later, he studied with a student and friend of Ravel’s. “Mademoiselle Descaves worked with him, played for him,” Jean-Yves says. “I almost felt like I had met Ravel myself. Like the door would open in the class and he would walk in and tell us things. I really felt that direct link through her.”
Jean-Yves’ sentences collide and fracture. He has just returned to his home in Los Angeles from a tour in Asia, and has a busy week of teaching ahead. And yet this sentence-fracturing is not the product of a tired mind. Rather, it is pure joy: he simply cannot wait to talk about the next topic.
And no topic gives Jean-Yves greater pleasure than the communication between performer and audience. “Communication is everything,” he says. “The audience is what makes us musician. An artist doesn’t exist without an audience.”
At the beginning of a concert there may be the sense that listeners are squirming, shifting in their seats. Then, the air shifts. “You give the pleasure of the music. Suddenly you feel they’re with you. It’s a magical feeling.”
He compares the audience/performer relationship to a game of ping pong. As pianist, he sends his music across the “net,” into the audience. We “hit” it back to him, generating the unique, charged atmosphere of a concert hall. “You can’t play ping pong by yourself,” he adds. “And every audience is different. Every night is different.”
“Meeting my audience, speaking with them,” he says, “is more and more important,” he says. Things have changed. “In the old days, people were not close to artists.” Now, audiences want to know what makes artists tick: “What you’re like as a person, what you do.”
Jean-Yves is not afraid of this change. In fact, “to go towards the audience” delights him. Stéphane shares his commitment to this new world of closer interaction with listeners. “He has this gift of communication with the audience. He’s very comfortable onstage. An audience immediately feels close to him.”
Our time is up. He has to run off and impart his passion and knowledge to the next generation of young musicians. But not before he thanks me for taking the time to talk with him. “I will see you soon,” he says with a smile in his voice.