Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Colburn at The Wallis

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (photo courtesy Decca Records).

On Wednesday night, French-German pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet was joined by students from the Colburn School in a lengthy program of chamber music favorites at The Wallis. Aside from one solo violin piece, all of the music featured Thibaudet either accompanying the instrumentalists or collaborating with young pianists in four-hand or two piano arrangements. Thibaudet, currently Artist-in-Residence at Colburn, crafted a remarkably compelling and generous program that showcased the burgeoning talents of upcoming artists.

The program opened with Thibaudet alone, announcing that he had agreed to continue as Artist-in-Residence at Colburn for another three years. Thibaudet is known for his adventurous sartorial choices, but this evening he chose something more conservative, opting for a tasteful dark blue jacket by Vivienne Westwood. He began with a piece he has performed countless times before, Maurice Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess). It is perhaps Ravel’s most popular work (both in the original piano version and his later orchestration). Thibaudet took the piece at a slower tempo than is often performed, refracting the work’s somber emotions into something more resonant and charged. He leaned back from the keyboard for most of its duration, as if the music was too potent to imbibe. The marvel of Thibaudet’s playing is how completely it can make an audience forget the very nature of a piano—it is inherently a percussive instrument, with hammers that strike strings as the keys are depressed. In Thibaudet’s hands, the notes seem to materialize out of thin air.

After the solo performance, the Colburn students began their performances. The chamber pieces on display were far from the concertos that Thibaudet usually performs at his concerts, but they were not unfamiliar to him. “Chamber music has always been a very strong and important part of my life. Growing up I used to do tons of it,” said Thibaudet in an interview after the concert. He mentioned playing at the Spoleto festivals in the past, both in Italy and Charleston, South Carolina, where he would play different chamber programs every day of the week. “It’s always been very natural and very important for me. It’s really part of my language. And I need to have that chamber music element,” he said.

Michael Harper, a trumpet player in the post-graduate Professional Studies Certificate program, performed George Enescu’s Légende for trumpet and piano during the recital. The piece opens with measured chords in the piano and a slow, mournful line from the trumpet, before gradually picking up in intensity until the trumpet is furiously triple-tonguing. The music ends darkly with muted horn. Interestingly, the piano never falls into a traditional accompaniment groove; as the trumpet’s part becomes more intense, so does the piano’s. Although firmly in the classical tradition, the opening moments of the piece sound a great deal like Miles Davis’s revelatory introduction to the live version of My Funny Valentine, recorded nearly sixty years after Enescu’s piece was written.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (photo courtesy Decca Records).

Because of Thibaudet’s busy schedule (the next month alone has him performing with orchestras in Austria, France, and Russia), he can only spend a few weeks each year with the Colburn students. Harper’s first interactions with him were in October of last year, after signing up for a coaching session. Harper played the piece with his usual pianist for Thibaudet, who had never heard it before. “In the coaching session we talked about various ways to play the piece, different interpretations of it, and he had a lot of ideas for me,” said Harper. “He ended up sitting down and playing more of the piano part than my pianist because he was so intrigued by it. And then I heard a few days later that he wanted to play it on this recital, which was pretty exciting,” he said.

Harper did not initially know what to expect from working with Thibaudet. “The only thing I knew about him was these pictures where he looks very serious, so I was kind of worried about going in. Then I’d go in and he’s the most fun person to work with and had a lot of good ideas, too,” said Harper. That sense of fun is essential, since Harper has been playing Légende for years, as it is commonly used for trumpet auditions. “It’s difficult, because we start playing these pieces when we’re technically not even able to play them very well, so we develop all these phobias. This piece in particular has a lot of difficult things about it, which is why it’s asked on auditions. So every time I play it I realize ‘Oh, I’ve gotten a little better,’” he said.

Playing the piece so often necessarily means that Harper has been accompanied by many pianists with questionable grasps on the music. Not so with Thibaudet. “This is a very difficult piano part that he’s playing. I’ve played this piece at varying levels with competent—or incompetent—pianists. It’s really special to get to play with someone who is a powerful musician like that,” said Harper.

Albert Cano Smit, a pianist originally from Barcelona, Spain, performed Franz Schubert’s Fantasie in F Minor, D. 940. The piece, one of Schubert’s most important works for piano, is written for four-hands, meaning that two players sit together at the keyboard. There was a palpable intimacy to Smit and Thibaudet’s performance, with a mature artist and a gifted young performer coaxing Schubert’s music out of the same instrument. “I think the interesting thing about this is being able to see him in first person and work with him, and just be so close to him at the keyboard when he’s playing. His personality is contagious,” said Smit.

“The first day [of Thibaudet’s residency] we played that piece—I think he played it with his old teacher, [Aldo] Ciccolini, who then passed away,” he said. Thibaudet had played the piece recently before returning to perform with the Colburn students, and proposed playing it with Smit as part of the recital at The Wallis.

Thibaudet performed twelve pieces in total with the Colburn students, including a Rachmaninoff piece for six hands as an encore, which required Thibaudet to squeeze onto the bench with Federico Gad Crema, a student in the Bachelor’s program at the Colburn Conservatory, and Nicholas Mendez, a student in the Academy.

After the performance, the student musicians and guests waited outside Thibaudet’s dressing room. As his appearance drew nigh the crowd separated against either side of the hallway, as if laying a red carpet for their guest. Thibaudet greeted each of them with hugs and kisses, a warm and gracious host at odds with the popular conception of the distant artist.

In his dressing room, Thibaudet invites me to sit in front of the electric piano—“I’ve been sitting all night, so I want to be standing.” He’s clearly tired, and there is a sheen of sweat on his forehead, but he seems to regain energy as he speaks. I ask him why it is important to take a break from his performing and recording responsibilities to mentor the Colburn students. “Well, it’s really important to give back at a certain time in your life. I was so inspired by my teachers, and I remember that inspiration, which is like the engine of my career and my life as an artist. I think it’s important to give it to other people if I can,” says Thibaudet. Teaching students is also a way of passing on the traditions of earlier teachers to a new generation.

“Everything is a surprise. They’re always asking questions that you never think of, and then you have to find the answer. I don’t ask myself so many questions, but when somebody asks you, they say ‘how do you do this?’ And I don’t know, I just do it. And that’s when you learn, you have to think about how you do this,” he says.

The subject of teaching younger students brings to mind Thibaudet’s final teacher, Aldo Ciccolini, who died in 2015. “I was still playing for him when he was almost ninety, and just two months before he passed I called him in Paris because I felt like I needed to,” he says. Thibaudet played Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto for his ailing mentor. “The lessons with him were beyond piano. I think they were lessons of life. It was about everything, about music in general, but about literature, about life. It was not just about piano,” he says

“Piano was there, of course, but he was such a cultured person and I learned so much. He inspired me to get better. I was going to a lesson and I was so excited. I wanted to give my best because I just wanted to make him happy and show the best I could do. So I hope that I can bring a little of that to the young musicians. That’s really my goal.”

To learn more about The Wallis, visit TheWallis.org.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (Photo courtesy Decca Records).