I didn’t want to wear tails,” Jean-Yves Thibaudet said. The renowned pianist was recalling the controversies over his onstage sartorial choices-which tended toward unconventional, brightly colored outfits by Gianni Versace-at the start of his career.
“I got attacked from left and right,” Mr. Thibaudet, 48, said in a phone interview with The Observer from his home in the Hollywood Hills. Though he’s lived largely in the United States, for a decade in New York and in Los Angeles since 1998, he hasn’t lost his French passport, or accent. “There were some places where the reviews would not even speak about the performance; they would just speak about the clothes. It was not, for me, a provocation. I just wanted the music to be more modern and accessible to our times. The whole thing was so boring, I just wanted to rebel a little against that. … It took people a long time to believe that behind that, there was someone who could actually play the piano.”
Between his idiosyncratic fashions (these days designed exclusively by Vivienne Westwood) and his extensive film score work, Mr. Thibaudet, despite releasing dozens of recordings and performing with the world’s finest orchestras, has sometimes been unfairly tagged as a bit pop for the classical music establishment. After all, the Pride and Prejudice and Atonement soundtracks are not where most people go looking for “serious” pianists.
This issue of seriousness also comes up a lot when people talk about George Gershwin. The integral role of jazz in his works raises questions, in some circles, about the separation between “popular” and “classical” music, and his popularity, both in his own time and ours, has always been inherently suspicious to a certain type of classical music listener. It’s appropriate, then, that Mr. Thibaudet’s latest album focuses on the composer. The album, Gershwin: Piano Concerto/Rhapsody in Blue, recorded alongside Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, includes two of his most famous piano works, but in their more intimate jazz-band arrangements rather than the versions for full orchestra.
“I’d been asking Decca for so many years to record some Gershwin,” said Mr. Thibaudet (who sports aviator sunglasses on the album’s cover), “because he’s been a composer so important to me. Their point was, How can we justify-do we need another CD with the Gershwin concerto and the Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue? It was completely Marin’s idea, this new angle, and that got everyone a bit more excited. It gives it a fresh approach, and I think I play differently, too.”
The rarely performed arrangements help to de-familiarize some of the most familiar music on the planet. Rhapsody in Blue is particularly omnipresent. The piece famously underscores the opening of Woody Allen’s 1979 masterpiece, Manhattan. It’s been used in United Airlines commercials since the ’80s. It was even, briefly, the music to which WWF star Shawn Michaels would enter the wrestling ring.
“Gershwin is now present everywhere,” said Mr. Thibaudet. “It’s even too much, like with the commercials and the whole thing. Everyone knows his music. You don’t even have to say his name. They just know, they recognize it. It’s become universal.”