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The Keys to the Good Life

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Outside sits his metallic aubergine Porsche bearing the license plate JYPIANO. Inside, Jean-Yves Thibaudet goes gamely through various poses for a photographer while showing off his newly renovated kitchen, done in faithfully replicated 1940s Spanish tile and outfitted with such luxe items as a temperature-controlled wine storage cabinet. It’s the only habitable room of his Griffith Park house, now under serious reconstruction.

But mess amid rubble doesn’t stop the French-German pianist from wanting to play host at his home. “I insist,” he says, not too tired after stepping off a plane from New York, where he just played a round of Atlantic seaboard concerts. It’s now midnight for him (Eastern Standard Time), yet he passed up the offer to meet at an easier location.

“That would’ve been too impersonal,” he explains. Which is exactly the attitude that has helped put this unregenerate people-person on a roll: 200 concert dates a year at international music capitals, an exclusive recording contract with Decca and a discography numbering 30-plus.

Thibaudet stands out from the crowd of anonymous concert artists who dominate the world of classical music. He refuses to mark the great divide between performer and audience. He wants, above all, to commune with his public, and to do it his way.

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“Why not?” he asks, completely at ease in English. “People need more than a performance. They want to share something of your real life, your human spirit, who is behind the artist. That extra dimension is what I’m going to give them.”

Starting this weekend, as Thibaudet begins a two-week residency with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, locals will have the chance to sample his style in two orchestral programs, the first featuring Gershwin’s Concerto in F and the second, the Grieg Concerto; a concert of chamber music by Ravel and Poulenc; a jazz session at the Knitting Factory; a master class at the Colburn School of Music (open to the public). He’ll also visit with elementary school students after they attend a Sunday concert.

Thibaudet, 40, was born to a musical family in Lyon. His French father played the violin and his German mother the piano, both as amateurs. He began the piano at 5, commuting by train to the Paris Conservatory at 12 and studying first with Lucette Descaves, a friend of Ravel’s. Early honors included the Conservatory’s Premiere Prix and top prize for New York’s Young Concert Artists.

His style of pianism, characteristically French, is all virtuosic glitter primed for clarity and harmonic detail. The New York Times found “joy, brilliance and musicality” in his playing, and the Chicago Tribune described it as “elegant and cultivated ... with a ravishing cantabile spun out of seemingly infinite gradations of soft dynamics. Chopin never had it so good.”

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But if his artistry fits into a knowable, often mainstream format, the rest of the Thibaudet package resists such categorization.

There is the matter of his fashion flair and trendy taste, which has caught public, as well as critical, attention. Until recently he sported trademark red socks (purchased from a shop in Vatican City that supplies cardinals), a diamond earring, bracelet and moussed hair. Now it’s mostly the haute cool of Thierry Mugler designs.

“I’ll always hold out for what suits me, literally,” he admits. “I say, do whatever it takes to lure audiences; dress the way they do, reach out through a residency.

“If what I wear gets in the way, if half the review is about my attire, then I went too far. It’s true I’ve had periods being much flashier than I am now. [But] going back to white tie and dress tails is not even a possibility.”

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The whole flamboyant persona hangs together by way of an incurable and occasionally impulsive eclecticism.

“By nature, I’m very curious,” Thibaudet says, whisking his hand across the smooth counter top (and grumbling about smudge marks the maid forgot to clean). “That goes for everything in life, including every type of music. Because it’s so enriching for me to find new experiences. In Buenos Aires, I go to tango bars, in New York, jazz boites . I need these open lanes. I could not live with just recitals and concerts. That’s too limited. But when something grabs my interest, I go after it with total seriousness, with all my heart, with all my energy.”

Which is partly what brought him to this house in L.A., though his other base remains Paris. “I got it in a second,” he says, flicking ashes from his third cigarette in an hour. “Without another thought. Why? I hate to say so, but the weather is a big part. When I leave a tour to go home, it’s to a vacation, which is just the opposite of what other people do. So why not live in a beautiful, relaxing place like this?”

Doing what he wants has sometimes meant taking some critical brickbats--because his tastes often veer off the connoisseur path. Few acclaimed pianists, for instance, would record such kitsch as Addinsell’s “Warsaw Concerto,” or an album of excerpts, the kind often telemarketed as “romantic favorites.”

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But somehow, as in the case of jazz--he made a couple of recordings, one with pianist Bill Evans’ music and another of Duke Ellington’s--he manages to make his diverse interests mesh.

And those interests have informed his regular concert work, he says. As a result of the jazz exposure, he says that his interpretation of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and Concerto in F “is no longer recognizable” compared to recordings he made 20 years ago.

“Now, when I listen to them,” he adds, “they sound totally square. The jazz impulse in Gershwin was conscious. So you can’t bring off [Concerto in F] if you don’t know jazz and have it in your body. It’s like planting a seed that grows and blooms. Jazz is about improvisation. Chopin and Mozart were improvisationalists, too. But now everything is so rigid and we have the ur- text and the new ur- text. Playing it, though, you learn about freedom and how to lose yourself.”

Beyond jazz and some other whimsical, unorthodox repertory, Thibaudet also regularly accompanies such singers as Renee Fleming, Cecilia Bartoli and Angelika Kirchschlager in recital, plays chamber music (“every chance I get”), has appeared as an accompanist (unrecognizable behind a mustache) in the recent biopic “Bride of the Wind” and, unseen, performed Schubert impromptus in Jane Campion’s 1996 “Portrait of a Lady.” He even stepped onto the Metropolitan Opera stage with Placido Domingo and Mirella Freni to play a Chopin-esque nocturne in Giordano’s “Fedora.”

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“I was like a madman, never so nervous in my life,” says Thibaudet. “I worried that I would enter at the wrong moment and do the wrong thing,” he says.

“But it was really a dream come true,” he adds, recounting his love affair with opera. At 14, he had heard Monserrat Caballe, whose voice struck him “as a beautiful dessert with chocolate and cream, something I couldn’t get enough of. I fell in love with the voice, the music, the repertoire.”

In fact, he says, if God asked Jean-Yves Thibaudet what kind of musical talent he would most like to be given, what would it be?

“No hesitation there,” he says. “Make me a singer. But a great singer.” The hour is late and Thibaudet walks his visitor to the street, where his Porsche gleams under the lamppost. He has some parting words--actually an all-embracing motto that speaks beyond the particulars.

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“I believe in two things in life: Never follow fashion, make the fashion. And, you’re never overdressed, it’s others who are underdressed. You are what you are, and people must adjust to it.”

*

Jean-Yves Thibaudet, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, tonight, 8 p.m., and Saturday, 2:30 p.m., Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. $12-$78. (323) 850-2000.


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