In the news:
Jean-Yves Thibaudet joins Symphony, Morlot for Ravel
French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet returns to the Seattle Symphony after only nine months away to join Ludovic Morlot in an all-Ravel program, Sept. 19 and 21.
Seattle Times arts writer
Seattle Symphony with Jean-Yves Thibaudet
7:30 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Saturday, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $19-$112 (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org). The Symphony also plays an all-Ravel program, without Thibaudet, at “Ravel Untuxed,” 7 p.m. Friday; $17-$81.
French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet wowed Seattle audiences earlier this year with his artful contributions to the Seattle Symphony’s performances of two masterpieces by French composer Olivier Messiaen: “Turangalîla-Symphonie” and “Quartet for the End of Time.”
So it’s a treat to have him back in town nine months later for the opening concerts in the Symphony’s Masterworks series.
Titled “Morlot Conducts Ravel,” the all-Ravel program features both piano concertos by the French composer, along with four other pieces of his: “Alborada del gracioso,” “Rapsodie espagnole,” “Pavane pour une infant défunte” and “Boléro.” The fact that it’s reuniting Thibaudet and Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot on the stage at Benaroya Hall in less than a year speaks as much to their personal friendship as to their artistic affinity.
“We just love being together,” Thibaudet explained in a recent phone interview from Paris. “We go out, we have dinner, we laugh, we drink. And that makes it a very different experience onstage, because of that ongoing friendship. And then musically, when something clicks with somebody, it’s great. You want to do more.”
Morlot, speaking in Seattle, points out that both he and Thibaudet are from the same city in France — Lyon — and both still have family there. “But most importantly we have many friends in common. … It’s kind of an enclosed and small world to be a French artist performing everywhere,” he adds. “Inevitably we just know of each other and get to see each other quite a bit.”
Still, this will be first time for them to perform the Ravel concertos together.
The Concerto for Left Hand in D major and Piano Concerto in G major were composed almost simultaneously, in 1929-1931, but are a near-shocking study in contrasts.
“One, I would say, is like the sun,” Thibaudet remarks, “and the other is really the dark side of the moon. I mean that Left Hand Concerto is so incredibly intense and poignant that sometimes, really, it hurts. You feel that Ravel was very touched by all the friends he lost in the first World War.”
The piece has a curious history. It was commissioned by pianist Paul Wittgenstein (brother of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein), who had lost his right arm in World War I. The physical challenges of the piece, Thibaudet says, are significant, and he has to do some special preparation beforehand whenever he takes it on. Otherwise, he says, it’s like running a marathon without warming up.
One odd side effect of the piece is what happens to his right hand during performances. “When I finish the concerto, if I put my right hand on the piano, it is completely numb.”
Thibaudet stands in direct musical descent from Ravel, in that he was a student of pianist Lucille Descaves who, in turn, was a student of the composer.
“It was fantastic that this lady knew Ravel, knew Prokofiev. … She would speak of them,” he says, “almost like the door would open, and Ravel would walk in and say, ‘Hi — let me tell you a few things here.’ ”
She also had musical scores of Ravel works tucked in a cupboard with notes on them in different colored inks. All the blue, she said, was Ravel’s. They aren’t just tips on interpretation, but corrections of mistakes in the published score. Thibaudet sees part of his musical mission as passing these corrections along to the next generation of pianists and symphony conductors.
Thibaudet has his own checkered history with the Concerto for Left Hand, which he put off learning and performing for as long as possible: “I kept saying, ‘Why one hand? I can play with both hands.’ ”
Finally, in 1994, the organizer of the BBC Proms in London cornered him, saying, “You know, Jean-Yves … either you come with the Left Hand Concerto or you just don’t play the Proms this year.”
“So I started learning it,” Thibaudet recalls, “and I have to say that not only did I fall in love with the piece, but I thought, ‘My god, why did I wait? What is it that I couldn’t understand?’ It’s an incredible, incredible piece.”
The G major concerto, whose composition Ravel interrupted to write the Left Hand Concerto, is a lighter and more sparkling affair. It also shows a strong jazz influence.
“People that are not too familiar with music in general,” Thibaudet says, “come to me, not in shock but surprise, saying, ‘My god — this piece. It sounds like jazz sometimes! What is it?’ ”
Ravel composed it after a U.S. trip where he met George Gershwin and heard blues and jazz.
“He was completely fascinated and inspired,” Thibaudet says. The concerto, he adds, has “lots of jazz rhythm, jazz syncopations, even jazz harmonies. … It’s a real little game with that, so you can’t ignore it and play it like a Bach cantata.”
The other four works on the program focus on the Spanish influence on Ravel’s writing. With the exception of “Boléro,” the pieces — which get an outing of their own at “Symphony Untuxed” at 7 p.m. on Friday — aren’t frequently performed in their orchestral versions.
Morlot, last week, said he’s looking forward to conducting more Ravel next June (the complete “Daphnis et Chloé”) when the League of American Orchestras holds its annual conference in Seattle. Other 2013-14 highlights include U.S. debuts of two concertos performed by the soloists they were written for: Renaud Capuçon in a violin concerto by Pascal Dusapin and Tomoko Mukaiyama in a piano concerto by Alexander Raskatov.
The Symphony and Seattle Opera are also collaborating on Verdi’s Requiem (“to celebrate Speight Jenkins’ long tenure at the Opera,” Morlot says). The biggest news, of course, is that the orchestra will be going to Carnegie Hall next May to give the New York debut of John Luther Adams’ “Become Ocean,” along with performances of Debussy’s “La mer” and Varèse’s “Desérts.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org