"He has such a flourish about him, doesn't he?"
That's Marin Alsop, speaking about Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the French pianist with the scintillant technique, refined musicality and really great clothes.
Thibaudet is the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's soloist for two weeks, starting with an all-Gershwin feast that is being recorded for Decca, his longtime label. He'll play "Rhapsody in Blue," Concerto in F and the "I Got Rhythm" Variations. Next week, Thibaudet will take on a bravura piece by Liszt - "Jean-Yves is such a virtuoso," Alsop says, "a 21st-century Liszt."
Originally, the popular pianist expected to be touring Europe with Alsop and the orchestra at this time. When that trip was called off for lack of funding, Thibaudet kept the dates free for a BSO collaboration here. He's especially looking forward to digging into the three Gershwin works.
"I have been asking to do a Gershwin recording for so many years," Thibaudet, 48, says. "It is such a joy to do this now with Marin."
There's a novel element to the recording. The "Rhapsody" will be performed in the original jazz orchestra arrangement by Ferde Grof? heard at the work's 1924 premiere by Paul Whiteman's ensemble; it doesn't turn up nearly as often as the symphonic version Grof? subsequently prepared. Rarer still is an arrangement he did of the concerto for jazz orchestra, after Gershwin had done his own symphonic orchestration of that score.
Nearly two decades ago, Alsop revived interest in Grof?'s treatment of the concerto, which had long been forgotten.
"Whiteman asked Grof? to do a version he could do with his band," the conductor says. "It has a little more primitive quality. It bumps up different qualities in the piece, like the syncopation, and Grof? tailored it to specific players in Whiteman's band. But it hurt Gershwin's feelings that Whiteman asked Grof? to do this arrangement."
A 1993 Alsop-led recording with pianist Leslie Stifelman and Concordia, the orchestra founded by the conductor in the early 1980s, reveals the extra jazzy flavor of the arrangement. That disc is now out of print, making the forthcoming Thibaudet/Alsop/BSO release all the more likely to garner attention.
Alsop calls this version of the concert "a great alternative, not a substitute," since "Gershwin's orchestration is fabulous." The existence of that alternative came as intriguing news to Thibaudet.
"I can't wait to be sitting at the piano hearing that orchestration," he says. "I think it will be terrific. This may give the concerto a new life. And I'm sure I will be inspired to play it a little differently."
Thibaudet will also be performing the original version of the "Rhapsody" for the first time in these concerts (he has recorded the full orchestral version), but he has a long history with these pieces.
"I learned both at 14 and performed them in the south of France," the pianist says. "I would love to hear recordings of what my Gershwin sounded like then. It was probably so square and straightforward."
That's because Thibaudet had not yet been properly introduced to the principal ingredient of Gershwin's style.
"My parents listened to a lot of music, but only classical," he says, "and my sister listened to the pop stars of the day. There was nothing in between. I didn't know what jazz was until 16 or 17, when I discovered this whole other world of music. Jazz is really a part of my life now. You can't play Gershwin if you don't know jazz. You really have to be in that kind of groove."
Alsop, who has her own strong jazz background, finds the pianist perfectly persuasive in Gershwin.
"Jean-Yves brings, I think, a real jazz perspective," she says. "He also has that wonderful French quality in his playing that I think Gershwin, who was influenced by the French Impressionist school, would have loved. That's not to diminish Jean-Yves' mastery of the American idiom."
As his dozens of recordings document, from Mendelssohn and Satie to Duke Ellington and the soundtrack of the 2005 film "Pride & Prejudice," Thibaudet is at home in a broad range of repertoires. The pianist, who made his public debut at 7, has also spent a good deal of time in a supporting role at the keyboard.
"One thing that has changed me the most musically is playing for singers," he says. "This really has completely changed my approach to melody, line, phrasing. Every pianist should play for singers. You learn things a piano teacher never tells you. Breathing is continually in my mind now, the way a singer shapes a line."
Thibaudet has had memorable collaborations with such opera stars as Ren?e Fleming and Cecilia Bartoli. If he were to accompany a pop singer someday, one name would be at the top of his list.
"At this moment on my machine is Barbra Streisand's new album 'Love is the Answer.' I listen to it all the time," the pianist says. "I just adore this woman."
Another woman who makes a big impression on him - literally on him - is British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. For about eight years, she has created his distinctive, nontraditional concert attire. It turns out that it was Gershwin who first brought Thibaudet and Westwood together.
"I asked her if she would do for me special clothes to play 'Rhapsody in Blue' at the Proms [a high-profile concert series] in London," the pianist says. "It was phenomenal, a design with an 18th-century look. She called it 'Dangerous Liaison.' On the first day I saw it, I asked her what was to be worn underneath the jacket, which had a very deep d?collet?. She said, 'No, honey, you don't wear anything underneath.' Can you imagine - I was going to be at Royal Albert Hall in a concert being televised, with a jacket open to the navel."
Westwood relented and devised what Thibaudet describes as "a little shirt." She remains his principal outfitter.
The pianist's direct link to haute couture started with Versace - "The designs were very loud and colorful; it was the '80s and '90s" - but the interest in making a visual statement goes back much earlier.
"It all started as a child," Thibaudet says. "For my first concert, my mother took me to shop for something to wear and I said, 'I want that suit, that shirt.' It was freaky. I've always loved fashion."
Early in the pianist's career, he went along with the persistent classical music custom of performing in white tie and tails.
"It's one of the stupidest-looking things," he says. "I grew tired of tails. Singers had all those fabulous gowns, and here we had to wear the same thing. I think it would be fantastic if orchestras had different clothes; they could find a local designer. That old tradition is a turn-off for a lot of people. It's one reason young people think classical music is boring."
Boring is one word unlikely to ever be applied to Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
If you go
Jean-Yves Thibaudet will be the piano soloist with the BSO in an all-Gershwin program at 8 p.m. today and Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.; 8 p.m. Saturday at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. The pianist also performs music by Liszt with the BSO on Nov. 19 at Strathmore, Nov. 20 and 21 at the Meyerhoff. Tickets are $25 to $90. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.