Returning favorite: Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet making seventh appearance with OKC Philharmonic
Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s bond with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic is nearly as old as the orchestra itself.
The French pianist made his debut with the then-fledgling philharmonic in November 1990, during its first full-length season of concerts.
“I have a special very relationship with Oklahoma City, and I love (that). I think it’s like friends. In life when you grow older, you realize that one of the most important things is your friends. ... And I feel the same with orchestras in someplace that I really like to go back to. I can’t always go everywhere, but Oklahoma City, for some reason, we built from the first day I went there, that incredible connection,” Thibaudet recalled in a recent phone interview from his Los Angeles home.
“I remember when (Founding Music Director) Joel Levine was there, I went there the first time and I was really young … and I was thrilled to be there. Also, I had a great time and they took such good care of me. ... I’ve never lost the relationship with that place, with the orchestra, with the audience, with the people in the symphony, the administration, everybody."
The two-time Grammy Award nominee will make his seventh appearance with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic Saturday when he is the soloist on Hungarian composer Franz Liszt’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major.”
“I’m very, very happy to be able to offer it to the audience there because it really is one of my favorite pieces,” Thibaudet said. “In a way, it’s like a poetic adventure. You have the melody that Liszt presents at the beginning, and then this melody is transformed for 20 minutes. … It goes from very poetic and very dreamy at the beginning, to very heroic, almost military at some points, then very virtuosic, then very sad, then very happy. It just goes through all those different transformations and it’s really fascinating.”
Saturday’s concert will mark the sought-after soloist’s first Oklahoma City performance since Levine retired last year and Alexander Mickelthwate, who is in the midst of his first full season as the orchestra’s music director, took up the baton here.
Although he has never conducted Thibaudet in concert, Mickelthwate said he has worked with the pianist at least three times between the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, where he was assistant conductor, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he was associate conductor before moving to Canada, where he was music director for 12 years of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra before coming to Oklahoma.
The conductor said Thibaudet’s style is a good fit for Liszt’s second piano concerto.
“It’s very virtuosic and very inspiring and great playing,” Mickelthwate said. “The thing with Liszt it’s so interesting because he was really the first pianist who became a superstar, who extended the piano technique itself, like what (one) was able to do on a piano with 10 fingers. … So, he was real revolutionary but also a total mesmerizing superstar.”
Born and raised in Frankfurt, Germany, Mickelthwate programmed the Liszt concerto alongside Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Kaiser-Walzer, Op. 437 (Emperor Waltz)” and German composer Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life), Op. 40” for Saturday’s concert, titled “Deep German Romanticism.”
“It was all one empire at that time — German, Austrian, Hungarian — and Liszt was this kind of a romantic, like a poet on the piano,” Mickelthwate said.
When Thibaudet returns to Oklahoma City, he’ll again be reunited with the 9-foot concert grand piano he picked out for the philharmonic in 1994 at the Steinway & Sons factory in Germany.
“I remember going to Hamburg and choosing a piano for the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, and there it was. Then, of course, I came to play the first concert on the new piano,” he said. “There’s a few places where I’ve done that — not so many — and I really feel that there’s something that’s very unique and very personal and intimate about each piano. ... A piano has a soul."
He praised the OKC Philharmonic for taking good care of the piano, for which he feels an almost fatherly bond.
“I not only have a family, but I have a child in Oklahoma City, you see,” he said with a chuckle. “So, I have to come and visit my child regularly, which is a very big part of my relationship with the place and why I’ve come so many times.”
Oklahoma City Philharmonic with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N Walker.
Tickets and information: www.okcphil.org or call 842-5387.