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The Voyages of Saint-Saëns, with Thibaudet, Shani, and the BSO

Jean-Yves Thibaudet wears a fully black suit and stands in front of an open piano. He has silver hair and blue eyes, and is softly smiling.
Andrew Eccles
Jean-Yves Thibaudet

Saturday, December 9th, 2023

In an encore broadcast, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet joins the Boston Symphony for Saint-Saëns’s virtuosic Egyptian Concerto, and Israeli conductor Lahav Shani leads the BSO in his Symphony Hall debut with Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and Rachmaninoff’s dazzling Symphonic Dances.

Lahav Shani, conductor
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano

Sergei PROKOFIEV Symphony No. 1, Classical
Camille SAINT-SAËNS Piano Concerto No. 5, Egyptian
Sergei RACHMANINOFF Symphonic Dances

This concert was originally broadcasted on February 18th, 2023 and is no longer available on demand.

Hear a preview of Saint-Saëns's Piano Concerto No. 5 with Jean-Yves Thibaudet with the audio player above, and read the transcript below:


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet is back in Boston with the Boston Symphony. Jean-Yves, it's so good to have you back. This time you're playing Saint-Saëns' Fifth Piano Concerto, a piece that strangely doesn't get played very often. But I wonder what you can say about what makes this piece by Saint-Saëns. What are the markers of Saint-Saëns that you find in this piece that other composers wouldn't do?

Jean-Yves Thibaudet Well, it's interesting. We were discussing with Lahav [Shani], the Maestro, just today before the rehearsal, and there actually are a lot of things in there that other composers stole later, like Ravel, I mean, quite a few things he was pointing out. And I said, I've never thought of, but you're absolutely right. I mean, Saint-Saëns was a very, very gifted, I think he's an underrated composer. People just don't really appreciate him or even know his music so, so much. And this concerto is an example. I mean, it's a phenomenal piece, is so exciting, it's so fun, it's so exotic.

He wrote it for the 50th anniversary of his debut, and he was ten when he did his debut, so he was 60. And he wrote it in Egypt, which is why it's called the "Egyptian," nickname, at least. He wrote it when he was in Luxor on holidays. And it really is a phenomenal piece. So, Saint-Saëns was one of these composers that were - there's a few of them - that were fantastic virtuosos themselves, like Liszt, like Rachmaninoff. He was of that level. He apparently was an absolutely incredible pianist. So he always writes things that are pretty much pyrotechnical, and a lot of virtuoso stuff. But in this concerto, there's so many, I think, beautiful colors. And it's also such a diversity of everything. It's at one point you're really in Far East, one point you're in Egypt, some part is Spanish. It's like traveling, it's a very international concerto and I think Saint-Saëns was a big traveler himself. He also wrote Africa, that piece for piano and orchestra. So he was very modern for his time. And so I really am very fond of that piece. And as you said, it's hardly ever played, very few pianists play it. And I'm very happy to bring it anywhere when I can.

Brian McCreath So the fact that he was a virtuoso lends itself to the kind of playing you have to do. Is that one of the rewards of playing it, simply the challenge, the technical challenge of it? But is there also an artistic reward beyond the technical challenge?

Jean-Yves Thibaudet Oh, absolutely. Yeah, no, thank God, there always is, yeah. But the beautiful thing, as I said before, with, like Liszt, like Rachmaninoff, I mean those kind of composers that were fabulous pianists as well is that it's well written for the piano. So it is difficult, it is demanding, but it's well written. It's very pianistic because he knew to write for the piano. So it's very virtuoso. But it fits well in your fingers. So that's always a pleasure. There are some composers that are really sometime weird, it's not written so pianistically. And so in this case, this is the case.

Now, it also is a very touching piece. It's a lot of beautiful, beautiful themes. In the second movement, that main theme, he said, as he was on that special boat that goes on the Nile, and he was on one of those and he said there were peasants and farmers on both sides, and they were singing that tune and he wrote it down. And that's the tune of the second movement. I don't know if it's true or not, but that's what I read about the piece. But it's a lovely little tune, it's a tune that stays in your head and you just want to hum it, and it's very sweet. There's a lot of very sweet, very poetic and gorgeous moments. Also interaction with the woodwinds, it's sometimes like chamber music, too.

Brian McCreath There's one thing, though, that's really memorable in the second movement, and it's this very special sound that somehow you're getting out of the piano. There's some technique that you're using. I don't know what it is because I'm not a pianist, but there's this very special sound in the upper register. Your right hand must be doing it. Can you describe any way how, someone who doesn't know the piano, can you describe how that sound is emerging from the instrument?

Jean-Yves Thibaudet I always love the first time we rehearse it to see the heads turning around, especially the woodwinds, for some reason, they always get very, they kind of look around, saying, "What is he doing? Does he have another toy piano under his belt?" Well, I mean, 90%, I would say, is the way it's written by Saint-Saëns. I think is a completely pure genius find that he did there. So the way it's written, the right hand is very high, left hand is about middle register, and the harmonies that are, they kind of play against themselves. They make harmonics just by playing them together. It's difficult to explain, but it really does. And then there is a voicing that you have to find. And I play with both pedals, also the right pedal, of course, but also the left pedal. I kind of have it not all the way down, so it's like it's just at the point where he does give a little clingy sound to the piano. I mean it's something you have to find, but it's a really, it's an effect. And in the Boléro, Ravel is using it in one of the variations, he's using exactly the same with the orchestra, same idea of having two piccolos doing [sings] and one down instrument, down doing it, and it's exactly the same idea. So he stole it from Saint-Saëns.

Brian McCreath I'm so fascinated. I'm even more fascinated by this now than I was when I was listening to this. Because if I understand you correctly, part of what you're describing is what we call harmonics. It's the interaction of two notes where they create a third note that exists sort of in the air.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet Could I just...

Brian McCreath You want to go to demonstrate? Yeah. Let's do it. Let's do it. We're walking over to the piano here in the green room.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet [plays piano]

Brian McCreath It's so beautiful.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet It sounds like, yeah, really like you're in another world, or something else, right?

Brian McCreath Yeah, yeah, exactly. It's very ethereal. It's very otherworldly. And any time that a composer is so skillful as to intentionally pull harmonics out of any group of instruments, it's fascinating to me.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet Well, I think Saint-Saëns really was very, very commanding, I mean, composer. He wrote so many things that are just hardly ever played. And people don't really always, I think, you know, have just the big... I mean while we think of Debussy and Ravel and all this. But Saint-Saëns really has a very important place in the musical world. I think he was a very important composer, and ahead of his time. I think he was very modern.

Brian McCreath Well, I want to ask you about Saint-Saëns' place in your own life, especially this season. I took the liberty of looking at your schedule and some of the other repertoire that you're playing this season include [Olivier Messiaen's] Turangalîla-Symphonie, [Bernstein's Symphony No. 2] Age of Anxiety, which you did here in Boston a few years ago. You're doing a recital program of all the Debussy Preludes and then this Gershwin program that we're just so stoked about that you're bringing to Tanglewood with Michael Feinstein. An unbelievable range of music. And I think for a lot of us, it's hard to imagine how you travel from one place to another and pull these different pieces out. Describe what it's like when you come here for Saint-Saëns. Is it a little bit of a, I mean, it's not relaxing, but is it, does it give you a break from, say, Turangalîla, which is an incredibly challenging piece that so long. How does it fit in, and how does this work with your routine and your way of preparing for every show or, you know, concert program that you're doing?

Jean-Yves Thibaudet I love when you said pull out. I feel like I'm a magician. You have a hat, just pull out the Turangalîla, and you pull out Saint-Saëns' "Egyptian," yeah...

Brian McCreath [Laughs] That's what it feels like in the audience. We don't know how you're doing this. How does this work?

Jean-Yves Thibaudet Well, actually, it's funny, you mentioned, I just played last week in Hong Kong, I was in Hong Kong and I just played Turangalîla Symphony, so, and this week Saint-Saëns. So compared to Turangalîla, I would say that, in a way, Saint-Saëns is a bit, I mean, only just even by the length, because it's just a normal concerto of 25 minutes or whatever. Turangalîla is like 80 minutes, like two and a half concertos. So just that already is already a kind of a vacation in a way. But no, it's still, you know, demanding.

Well, they are all pieces that I have performed a lot in my life, so there's nothing that is new, brand new. If it was a new piece, I would need to have time in between, all kinds of things. But when these pieces are played a lot, I just bring them back. Some take more time than others, some I can almost bring overnight. I mean, the Saint-Saëns Five, I have sometimes gotten cancellations where I would have just flown in the morning, do a dress rehearsal before the show, and just the concert. I can do that with probably a dozen of concertos that are just right there that I perform so much.

But it still, you still have to practice every day, and I still have. Yesterday I was at home in L.A. and I practiced all the passages that I wanted in this concerto. So this still is work. But I think it's just the experience. You've played them. They come back. It's like friends, you know, they just stay in your mind. And the more you have played, the more they're in your mind, and the quicker they will come. Sometimes it's a brand new piece. You play it, then you work a lot up to the performance, and then you don't play it. Then the second time you feel almost like it's new again. You just need many times to kind of put in your brain the mark. But the Saint-Saëns certainly has, I think I played it the first time in 1985 at the Concertgebouw [in Amsterdam], and so that's been quite a few years. And I've played it on and off, you know, not all the time, but I do play it whenever people ask me for a concerto that is not played so often or, even if they ask for Saint-Saëns Number Two, I always try to twist their arm and say, How about Number Five? Just because nobody plays it, and also because we always do Ravel. I mean it's always the usual. So I always say, okay, how about doing Saint-Saëns Five, and people usually are, Oh wow, that's a good idea. And like Lahav [Shani] never done it. He didn't know the piece.

Brian McCreath Well, and again, we're very excited that you're not only doing the Gershwin program at Tanglewood, but you're doing Saint-Saëns Five at Tanglewood as well.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet We're doing both pieces [Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F and Saint-Saëns Concerto No. 5] because then we're going on tour in Europe with the orchestra, which is a great privilege and I'm really, really excited about that. And we'll do both pieces on tour.

Brian McCreath And you just mentioned Lahav hasn't done this before, Lahav Shani, our conductor this week, someone that you're now working with for the very first time. Tell me about working with him so far and your impressions of him.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet Oh, he's fantastic. I mean, I had heard about him. Of course, I'd seen him in concerts, you know, on TV, YouTube, whatever, but had never met him or seen him live. Well, you know, I don't know if everybody realizes here, but he's a phenomenal pianist. I mean, he's a great pianist himself, and he performs all the time, everything. So I think that also probably gives... I remember, for example, I've performed a lot with Vladimir Ashkenazy, who obviously is also a great pianist. And there is a certain, I mean, like complicity from another pianist. I mean, he knows exactly what, even if he hasn't, he probably hasn't played that piece, but he knows how the piano, I mean, how he feels, all of that. So it was so easy after, say, the first rehearsal. Well, first of all, we always meet. I like to meet together with a conductor. We have half an hour or whatever, 45 minutes where we go through the entire piece, and that saves lots of time because then when he's in front of the orchestra, he knows already what I'm going to do, what I like. So we kind of put that together. Then we arrive in front of the orchestra, and we just played through the entire concerto. And honestly, I mean, it could have been a performance. He was so completely with me and he got it immediately, so, so beautifully. And the orchestra, of course, you know, they're just something else. They just play, it's incredible. They react immediately. They're like sponges. If you do something, they immediately get inspired by it. And they just answer to that, that reaction, which means they listen all the time. You know, they're real musicians. It's like really making music together. It's of a very, very high and special level here.

Brian McCreath That's wonderful to hear. Well, thank you, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, it's so good to have you back and wonderful to hear this piece. Thanks for your time today. I appreciate it.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet Thank you, Brian.