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Thibaudet Goes Home, Plays Gershwin

available at Amazon
Gershwin, Concerto in F / Rhapsody in Blue,
J.-Y. Thibaudet, Baltimore Symphony
Orchestra, M. Alsop

(released on April 27, 2010)
Decca 478 2189 | 57'24"
Jean-Yves Thibaudet is French, but he lives in the United States and, for the most part, has his career here, too. On the occasion of the release of his new recording of Gershwin's Concerto in F and Rhapsody in Blue, in the Ferde Grofé arrangements for Paul Whiteman's jazz band -- yes, the album with the photograph of Thibaudet as Andy Warhol, apparently -- Renaud Machart interviewed Thibaudet (Jean-Yves Thibaudet, le "French Pianist", June 1) for Le Monde (my translation):
His well-known taste for cars, clothing, designer watches, and diamonds has often made him seem too easily like what he is not. Is he "disliked" in France, as some claim, for his flamboyant style, his insolent virtuosity, and his high fees? The Lyon-born pianist clarifies this troubled image for Le Monde.

Do you like to play fast?

At the start of my career, yes, I liked it. Slow movements annoyed me, I was waiting impatiently for the finale, and then I played quickly, too quickly, in effect. People change with age and experience. Today I love the profondeur of the adagios, and my passion for cars allows me to satisfy that taste for speed...

You manage to perform some lesser-known concertos, like the Khachaturian or Gershwin's Concerto in F, which you have just recorded...

Since I perform lots of concertos with the same orchestras each season, in America or on international tour, I have to keep my repertoire fresh. The Khachaturian is not as well known but always "works" with audiences. The problem is convincing the organizers and conductors, some of whom have refused to conduct it even before having opened the score. I play Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F in their symphonic versions for practical reasons, but I have always meant to record the extraordinary original version for jazz band, which gives a special punch and poetry to the works. We had to convince the holders of the rights to allow the score to be used, but I am happy about it.

People say that you don't play much in France because your fees are too high...

I don't know what is meant by a high fee: I am paid the same here as people pay me everywhere in the world. I can also play for no fee if the project or the cause interests me. Just know that I have regular offers from French institutions. Alas, many of them program concerts far less in advance than their American counterparts, who generally work three years in advance. It has happened that I have had to refuse something because I was not available, but not, as far as I know, for issues of money.

Do you always know what your agents are doing: isn't it in their interest not to lower your "value" in order to keep their 10% cut as large as possible?

Jack Mastroianni, my current agent, is not like that, but I know of one case where one of my former agents pretended that I was not available when actually I was, perhaps for some concern about the fee or because the location did not seem "important" to him. But I learned about this much later. Once again, I would be thrilled to come play in France as soon as my schedule permits it: I get offers regularly, and I absolutely do not feel disliked or cursed. When Kurt Masur and the Orchestre national de France invited me on an international tour, I was proud and thrilled about it.
Marin Alsop programmed both of the Gershwin pieces, as well as his variations on I Got Rhythm (also made for Whiteman, but in the slightly different version found in Gershwin's manuscript), at the BSO's concerts last November. (We had to miss it, as did the Washington Post, but Tim Smith was there for the Baltimore Sun.) The tracks presented on this disc were recorded live at those concerts (the ones at the Meyerhoff, not at Strathmore), preserving some of the edgy energy -- and some of the inevitable errors and misalignments -- of live performance. The arrangements are definitely worth hearing (plink of the banjo, wail of the saxophone, and all), worth owning as an alternate to your favorite orchestral version, and could even pass muster as your only version -- if you are looking to buy one, and if the jazz side of the jazz-classical tightrope Gershwin liked is what most appeals to you. On the other hand, I am not sure that I buy Thibaudet's claim that he no longer lives only for fast movements, at least judging by the velocity of the interpretations he has recorded here, and not always in coordination with Alsop and her band. The members of the BSO included on the project play well, and with a convincing jazz-like flair, but it still might be interesting to hear these versions played by an actual jazz ensemble more like Whiteman's band.

By coincidence, Joe Banno's review of this disc appeared on the Washington Post Web site today, and Tim Smith reviewed it for the Baltimore Sun. Somewhere, a publicist is wetting himself or herself.


Anonymous said...

The "I Got Rhythm" Variations was not, of course, written for Whiteman; Gershwin prepared it as a novelty for his 1934 28-cities-in-28-days concert tour.

Interesting to hear about Thibaudet's efforts to keep his repertory "fresh." Los Angeles audiences might remember his 6/05 Hollywood Bowl appearance with Leonard Slatkin and the LA Phil; the pianist hadn't yet memorized the "IGR" Variations, and was playing it with the score before him, page-turner and all. I remember the tsk-tsking by musicians in the audience that evening...

Charles T. Downey said...

Yes, thanks for that correction, which I have noted, and for the observation about the Hollywood Bowl concert (a venue that seems perfectly suited to the kind of player Thibaudet is).