Piano Man

Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet Delivers Dynamic Performance of Franz Liszt's Work at Zellerbach Hall

Simone Anne Lang/Photo

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There is an ill-founded stereotype that classical music is for the old and retired, carrying a sort of maturity that young whippersnappers have no patience for. As Zellerbach Hall filled with snowy-haired, cane-totting seniors, all eager to witness Jean-Yves Thibaudet in action, the misconception resurfaced. But as the dapper, Vivienne Westwood-clad pianist took the stage, he brought along an expressive elegance. Working with Liszt's most complex compositions, Thibaudet transformed from just another guy clanging away on a piano to the classical genre's equivalent of a rock star.

When asked to throw out names of classical composers, the First Viennese School - Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart - inevitably comes to mind. So it's no wonder why Thibaudet describes Liszt as underrated. But this prolific composer was a trendsetter in his time. It was Liszt who ardently supported "programme music," music that had a thematic and narrative element, and it was Liszt who was able to convey such vivid imagery through mere notes. In honor of the 200th anniversary of Liszt's birth, Thibaudet ran through a varied repertoire of his works that showed the different personalities of the Hungarian maestro, from "Consolations" to his transcriptions. Expressing a deep admiration for the virtuosic pianist, Thibaudet not only gave flawless renditions but also inserted his own embellishments, creating yet another layer to the already complex pieces.

Thibaudet's immense comfort with mastering intricate sheet music stems from a lifetime acquaintance with the piano. Launching his career at the mere age of seven with his first performance, the Grammy-nominated pianist has now released over 40 albums, toured with the world's leading orchestras and graced the "Pride and Prejudice" and "Atonement" soundtracks.

Perhaps what makes his piano-playing such an intense aural experience is Thibaudet's incredible display of dynamics. In "Consolation No. 3 in D Flat Major," he played with a flowing gentleness. This subtlety was sharply contrasted with the harsh urgency of "Tarantella," whose thundering notes spanned across the entire keyboard. The adroitness expressed through these dramatic changes was how he made the pieces his own creations, adding spirit to what would have otherwise been a placid performance.

It's a common assumption that a piano concert's selling point is its music . Maybe that's why so many people had their eyes closed when listening to Thibaudet. But when put under the spotlight, pianists are actors too. Something about performing on a minimalist stage must have brought out the theatricality in Thibaudet. He knew his capabilities and had no inhibitions with flaunting them off. During his many embellishments, his fingers flew across the keys so quickly that they became rapid blurs. For the more calming selections, Thibaudet lengthened the legatos and hunched over the piano, swaying so extremely that his nose nearly grazed the keyboard. On the other side of the spectrum, Thibaudet showcased his vigor with his exagerrated movements. During the last few bars of "Tarantella," he pounded the keys so hard that his body practically levitated off the seat.

Classical music lives up to its stereotype in that it's not for everyone. But witnessing the ardent fervor flourishing under the bright lights turns the piano from a commonplace instrument to an artistic vessel worthy of appreciation. Working with the poetic pieces of Liszt, Thibaudet's performance was both a celebration of Liszt's accomplishments and an exhibit of his own.

Cynthia Kang is the lead music critic. Contact her at [email protected]

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