For this classical piano star, a detour is business as usual

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For this classical piano star, a detour is business as usual
Sheet music bears notes by Michael Feinstein as he and Jean-Yves Thibaudet prepare for the debut of “Two Pianos: Who Could Ask for Anything More?” at the McCallum Theater in Palm Springs, Calif., on March 3, 2023. The show consists largely of new arrangements, by Tedd Firth, of music by Gershwin and his contemporaries. (Roger Kisby/The New York Times)

by Joshua Barone

PALM DESERT, CALIF.- “Jean-Yves, when did you start playing the piano?” Michael Feinstein asked from the stage of the McCallum Theater here on a recent Friday night.

“I started when I was 5 years old,” said star pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, whose instrument was interlocked with Feinstein’s for their cabaret-style show, “Two Pianos: Who Could Ask for Anything More?”

“Oh, me too,” Feinstein responded.

“We both took a different path with our approach to the piano,” Thibaudet continued, reading from an iPad on his music stand. “I studied classical music——”

“And I,” Feinstein said, facing the audience, “studied nothing.”

There was laughter throughout the auditorium, while onstage, Thibaudet looked tickled. Speaking during a concert, beyond introducing an encore, was new for him. But he was warming up to it quickly.

Even if he was dipping into the unfamiliar on that first of many “Two Pianos” performances to come (including next season at Carnegie Hall), that’s business as usual for Thibaudet, 61, an artist who has, unusually for a classical musician, made a career of doing whatever he wants.

Brazenly himself — openly gay before many of his colleagues, abandoning traditional concert attire for couture — he has long been an eminent interpreter of classical music, but also a prolific collaborator and a soloist on movie soundtracks like Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch.” Through it all his tastes have been eclectic; he’s as likely to take on lieder as he is the Great American Songbook and the jazz of Bill Evans. Characteristically, he is following “Two Pianos” with something like its opposite: Messiaen’s thorny, monumental “Turangalîla-Symphonie,” with the New York Philharmonic, beginning Friday.

“There are soloists who only play one or two concertos a season,” Thibaudet said during one of three interviews. “I couldn’t do that. I would stop practicing. I always want to try things.”

Thibaudet was born in Lyon, France, in an environment he described as “fortunate.” His parents were music lovers who supported him through the conservatory system — including studies at the storied Conservatoire de Paris — and didn’t make much of his coming out.

At school, he learned a Mozart sonata, but would also experiment with something else if it interested him. That open-mindedness is reflected in his 2021 album “Carte Blanche,” which starts with a new suite from the “Pride and Prejudice” soundtrack and continues with works from the Baroque period through the 20th century. The recording’s program, Thibaudet said, was “like going to a restaurant and having all your favorite dishes in one meal — with a lot of desserts.”

Such a broad scope, and a willingness to give almost anything a chance, is essential to Thibaudet’s artistry. “Obviously if I don’t like it I won’t do it again, but I at least tried it,” he said. “My life has been so enriched by all that. Your brain is like a computer — you’re constantly feeding it. So if I play some jazz and then some Chopin, the jazz gives the Chopin a certain freedom and relaxation.”

Relaxation, yes, but Thibaudet is also a proud Virgo whose lack of tension in performance would be impossible without a perfectionist’s rigor. “He is an exquisitely gifted technician,” Feinstein said. “And yet it is always the overarching intelligence behind an interpretation that makes his playing for me so special. He understands how to make any kind of music living and breathing, and never clinical.”

Thibaudet won competitions as a teenager, and early in his 20s signed a recording contract with Decca. Young artists often face pressure from varied competing interests: managers, administrators, label executives. Even then, though, Thibaudet insisted on making critical decisions himself.

He didn’t want his first concerto recording with Decca to be of French music — “It’s not your passport that makes your repertoire,” he said — so, he programmed Liszt. He traveled with his partner at the time, and declined dinner invitations abroad, no matter how prominent the company, if he couldn’t bring him. “I was thinking,” Thibaudet recalled, “if I had a wife, of course they would invite her.”

Hiccups like that, though, were rare, and overall, Thibaudet said, being open about his sexuality has made him a happy, open person. Perhaps more remarked upon, back then, was Thibaudet’s fashion. “I decided more than 35 years ago that I was not going to wear tails,” he said. “That was a battle.”

Thibaudet’s clothing collection — rivaled only by those of his fine wines and Champagnes — is rich with museum-quality pieces. He had a fruitful relationship with Gianni Versace, and an especially prolific one with Vivienne Westwood before her recent death. For many years, though, writers often couldn’t resist a disapproving comment about his outfits.

That cooled over time. There was one critic — Thibaudet wouldn’t name names, saying only that the newspaper was from a major city — who, after reviewing his concerts for more than two decades, wrote something along the lines of: At the end of the day, if you’re playing so well, you can wear whatever you want. “And I was like, there you go,” Thibaudet said. “It took you 25 years. Finally.”

Another pillar of Thibaudet’s career has been collaboration. In film, one partner has been Dario Marianelli, who featured him on his Academy Award-winning soundtrack for Joe Wright’s “Atonement” in 2007. More famous is their work together on Wright’s adaptation, two years earlier, of “Pride and Prejudice,” which opens with an elegant piano solo redolent of the Classical era, “Dawn.”

“All over the world people know that score,” Thibaudet said. “Then they go to hear Chopin or Debussy, and they tell me, ‘This is my first classical concert.’ I could play ‘Turangalîla,’ but they still come. It’s great.”

Some of Thibaudet’s most treasured partnerships have been with singers. “The human voice produces something that you cannot do with any instrument,” he said. “It touches your soul.”

He has recorded with Renée Fleming, the superstar soprano, with whom he became friends in the 1990s. She recalled that when she bought an apartment in Paris, he offered to take her to Ikea to help her furnish it; what she didn’t know until he pulled up was that he drove a Maserati with no trunk.

“Jean-Yves is an ideal collaborator,” Fleming said. “He has tremendous personality and charm, both on and offstage, that he brings to the music, but he’s also extremely flexible and sensitive.”

Sensitive, but unwilling, she added, to “put something before the public unless it is prepared to the very highest standard.” That much has been evident in his project with Feinstein, the reigning, de facto keeper of the Great American Songbook. Thibaudet and Feinstein already knew each other’s work when they met a couple of decades ago as neighbors in Los Angeles. What started as dinner-party fun — Richard Rodgers waltzes at the piano, and some improvisation — became a formal program inspired by their mutual love for Gershwin and his contemporaries.

As a model they also looked to Yehudi Menuhin and Stéphane Grappelli’s classical-meets-jazz collaborations, Feinstein said, in which Menuhin’s parts were precisely notated while Grappelli’s left room for improvisation. To pull off something similar with two pianos, Feinstein turned to his music director, Tedd Firth, who wrote most of the arrangements.

“I really wanted to focus on what they do best,” Firth said, adding, “I didn’t want to make Jean-Yves into a jazz player or Michael into a classical player, or water down either to create a neutral territory.”

The result is a fantasia-like program of Lisztian virtuosity. Firth’s arrangements have orchestral heft, with the melodies of each piece flowing freely between the two pianos. Sometimes Feinstein sings; sometimes Thibaudet plays alone; always, the music has the energy and showiness of an encore.

They rehearsed in Los Angeles before the McCallum Theater shows, putting in the hours of a full-time job in the days leading up to the premiere. During one of those sessions, Thibaudet behaved for a moment like a fan: He just wanted to hear Feinstein sing “Pure Imagination,” from “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” When the two fell out of sync during a Gershwin medley, Thibaudet said to follow the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” because at roughly 120 beats per minute, it was nearly the same tempo. (“My whole life is in that piece,” he added.)

By the sound check on opening night, both artists had been visibly nudged out of their comfort zones. But once the show started and the audience heard a familiar melody from Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” the auditorium resounded with applause. “That was the greatest gift that either of us could have,” Feinstein said. “It showed how excited they were to hear this music.” Feeling the energy of the house, Thibaudet said, he became “dangerously comfortable” with speaking onstage — even more so at the more assured performance the following night.

“Two Pianos” seemingly has a long life ahead of it, with dates still being booked at least two seasons ahead. An orchestrated version will play this summer with the Boston Pops at Tanglewood, the Cleveland Orchestra at its Blossom Music Festival and elsewhere. But before that, its two stars will continue with their separate careers. Feinstein has a Judy Garland celebration at Zankel Hall in New York later this month. And Thibaudet, of course, has “Turangalîla.”

“Maybe I need a week to readjust, but this is me,” Thibaudet said, adding with a giggle, “It’s perfectly normal for me.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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