One of today's most sought-after artists, Jean-Yves Thibaudet incredibly has yet to appear with the Utah Symphony. That will change next weekend. The French pianist will make his belated Abravanel Hall debut in the symphony's opening night concerts Friday and Saturday.
Thibaudet was slated to perform with the Utah Symphony in September 2001 in the season's opening concerts. But the performances took place a few days after 9/11, and Thibaudet, who was at his home in Paris when the attacks occurred, was unable to travel to Salt Lake City. Flights to the United States had been canceled in the wake of the tragedy.
"I really wanted to come, even if I would have had to arrive on the day of the first concert, but there was no way I was able to make it to Utah," Thibaudet said in a phone interview from his Paris home. "So I am making my debut four years later."
In both instances, Thibaudet decided on two famously difficult, yet stylistically dissimilar, works for his Utah Symphony debut. In 2001, it was Richard Strauss' early and impossibly demanding "Burleske." This time, it will be Franz Liszt's formidable Concerto No. 1 in E flat major.
Thibaudet scoffs at people who consider Liszt's piano music merely superficial bravura showpieces. "These people never think of it as music; they take Liszt for granted. But this (the E flat Concerto) is a great piece of music," he said.
Unlike Strauss, who wasn't a particularly good pianist, Liszt was the foremost exponent of his instrument of his generation. And being a formidable pianist, Liszt understood the instrument's capabilities intimately and exploited them ingeniously. "(The First) is well written for the piano," Thibaudet said. "In fact, he takes the piano to the limit, but it is always wonderful music."
The work is also ahead of its time. "It's extremely modern. Liszt was the first composer to do a concerto in one movement. And each section is also connected thematically — this is the beginning of leitmotivs."
As to the E flat major Concerto's perennial popularity, Thibaudet points to the fact that it has never left the repertoire. "Some concertos fall in and out of fashion, but this one has always been in fashion. It has always stayed in the repertoire."
Thibaudet performs the concerto several times each season. He has also recorded it on Decca with Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony. "That was in 1988. It was my first album with orchestra." The all-Liszt CD also includes the "Totentanz," the "Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Tunes" and the less frequently performed Concerto No. 2 in A major.
"I don't understand why the Second Concerto isn't performed more often," Thibaudet said. "It's a marvelous work and quite phenomenal in its own way. It's pensive and evocative and less obviously virtuosic than the E flat. I'm fortunate that I get to play it quite a bit every season."
As far as CDs go, Thibaudet has recorded over 40 albums to date. "I love to record," he admitted. "I wouldn't want to just record like Glenn Gould, but I love being in the recording studio."
Strauss' "Burleske" is Thibaudet's most recent album. He recorded it with Herbert Blomstedt and the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig. "I'm very fond of that piece and very proud of this recording," he said. "Burleske" was recorded live last year in September, a fact that's missing from the liner notes to the CD, much to his consternation. "It was the opening of their season last year, and we recorded the dress rehearsal and the concert."
Thibaudet feels equally at ease in the German repertoire as he does in the French, thanks to his education at the Paris Conservatory. His first teacher there was Lucette Descaves, a close friend and collaborator of Ravel's. "Madame Descaves was quintessential French school," he said. "I learned the music of Debussy and Ravel and also Prokofiev. She knew Prokofiev when he was living in Paris. They had dinner together weekly."
A few years after Descaves retired, Thibaudet became Aldo Ciccolini's pupil. "He was a fabulous teacher," he said. Ciccolini's technique was radically different from Descaves'. "It was a digital technique that I learned from him," Thibaudet said. "I learned how to play fast octaves and trills and how to pedal, especially the middle pedal, which I use quite a bit."
Thibaudet maintains close ties with the older pianist, who turned 80 two weeks ago. "There was a celebration here in Paris, and I played at the concert. It was wonderful."
Music director Keith Lockhart will lead the Utah Symphony next weekend. In addition to the Liszt concerto, the orchestra will play Shostakovich's "Festive Overture," op. 96, and Rachmaninoff's hourlong Symphony No. 2 in E minor.
If you go
What: Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano, Keith Lockhart, conductor, Utah Symphony
Where: Abravanel Hall
When: Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.
How much: $12-$50, $8 students
Phone: 355-2787 or 1-888-451-2787