French pianist Jean Yves Thibaudet has played Claude Debussy’s Préludes since he was a child. They’re a cornerstone of classical piano literature, after all, and in France they occupy a special place in every student’s repertoire. Ranging in difficulty from ostensibly simple to devilishly difficult, they’re worthwhile studies that push pianists’ technical and interpretive boundaries.

Still, it’s not often that you hear all 24 of these short masterpieces played in a single concert, as Thibaudet will present them on Sunday at Soka University in a recital presented by the Philharmonic Society. Each one creates its own special sonic universe and carries a richly evocative title, and for that reason they’re often programmed singly, as brief points of contrast in a recital of pianistic heavyweights. 

But Thibaudet, 61, is far enough along in his career to try things that he didn’t make time for as a rising piano star. In the last few years, he has performed the complete Préludes in concerts throughout the U.S. and Europe. 

“I have lived with most of them for my entire life,” Thibaudet said of the Préludes. “Some I played as a young kid, some I learned much later. And I recorded them in the late ’90s. So they’ve really been an important part of my life for a very long time. But playing them in their entirety in a concert had been an unrealized dream of mine for many, many years.”

Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano

Claude Debussy, Préludes, Book 1 and 2

When: 5 p.m. April 2

Where: Soka Performing Arts Center, 1 University Drive, Aliso Viejo

Cost: $45-$105

Contact: or 949-553-2422

Thibaudet agrees that each one of the Préludes is a self-contained musical statement, but he thinks there’s something important to be experienced in hearing them as a group. “It’s like an immersive adventure journey. He takes you to so many different, exotic places.”

That immersiveness is a big part of the challenge for him, Thibaudet says. “Some of them are very short, so you have to immediately create something. It’s like an actor playing 24 very different characters in a single performance.”

As an example of the Préludes’ technical challenges, Thibaudet pointed to “Des pas sur la neige,” which means “footprints in the snow.” Thibaudet described it as deceptively minimalist.

“When you look at it on paper, technically it doesn’t seem at all difficult. There aren’t that many notes. It’s very slow. But you have to create all these different layers of sound — do so much with so little.”

Thibaudet thinks the Préludes are the perfect distillation of Debussy’s revolutionary style. “He really created a brand new language. His harmony and rhythms, they were completely different from anything that came before. (The Préludes) represent an incredibly important moment in the history of piano literature.”

Some pianists take certain liberties with Debussy’s Préludes, often playing them out of order. 

Thibaudet isn’t opposed to those kinds of performance choices, but he prefers playing them in the order that Debussy originally arranged for them.

“I think Debussy said many times that they were not connected. But now, after playing them for so many years, I could not think of playing them in a different order because they’re just fixed in my mind. I don’t think it’s of great importance, but I just got used to it, and I think the order actually works very well.”

‘No wonder young people think we are dinosaurs!’

Thibaudet’s career has been distinguished by a determination to go his own way and explore all things that interest him, even if they pull him away from the usual career path for concert artists. He is celebrated for his interpretations of French classical music and has played with many of the world’s major orchestras and classical music superstars, but he’s also made fascinating forays into the world of jazz, performing arrangements and transcriptions of improvisations on recordings such as “Conversations with Bill Evans” and “Reflections on Duke.” He’s also a frequent contributor to movie soundtracks such as of “The Portrait of a Lady,” “Pride & Prejudice,” “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” “Wakefield,” “Atonement” and “The French Dispatch.” 

Recently, Thibaudet began collaborating with singer-pianist Michael Feinstein, resulting in their cabaret-style show, “Two Pianos: Who Could Ask for Anything More?” They presented the show in Palm Desert last month and plan to bring it to many other concert halls around the country. 

Thibaudet described a fan-boy relationship between the two artists. “The first time we met was at a big party in New York that I remember very well. Even before that I knew about him, and I actually was listening to him when I was living in Paris. I had all his CDs, and I always loved his music. It always gave me a very happy, happy feeling.”

To his surprise, Thibaudet discovered that the admiration was mutual. “He told me he came to many of my concerts but he was always afraid to introduce himself to me afterwards, which I thought was so sweet. I said, ‘Why didn’t you come backstage and say hello?’ And he said, ‘I didn’t want to bother you. I didn’t know you.’” Thibaudet laughed. “So here we were, both admiring each other for years. So when we finally met we really hit it off.”

Thibaudet and Feinstein had talked for years about collaborating, but they never followed through until recently. “We tried to plan it, and we didn’t know exactly what to do. Finally, we put something together. It took us a while because it’s very complicated. But it’s important to find the right angle to make this work.”

In addition to his choices of repertoire, projects and collaborators, something else that separates Thibaudet from his colleagues is his style of concert dress. Since the beginning of his career he has avoided traditional performance attire, preferring to make bold statements with imaginative outfits made by the late Vivian Westwood and other name designers. 

“I always thought, ‘Why do we have to wear this boring tails and white tie that has been worn the same way for hundreds of years?’ What a turnoff for the audience! No wonder young people think we are dinosaurs.”

“A concert is a special experience. It’s something that should beautiful and memorable in every respect. So as an artist I have to respect that and arrive on stage looking really festive and fitting for the occasion.”

Thibaudet has chosen to live in Los Angeles, and he’s active in Southern California as a teacher, concentrating his efforts on the Colburn School.

YouTube video

“I believe in the importance of passing on knowledge. I mean, my teacher in Paris, she knew Ravel. How unbelievable. I can speak about Ravel almost like if I knew him myself because she told me all the things he told her.”

After living in New York, Paris and other cultural capitals, Thibaudet says he feels comfortable at this stage living in Southern California. “I like the culture and the lifestyle. I think there’s a quality of life that I just don’t find anywhere else.”

He laughed. “And let’s be honest. The weather here is perfect most of the time!”

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