Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, with his red socks and striped jackets, likes to loosen up the world of classical music. His flair has made him a favorite on every continent and a frequent visitor to the Twin Cities over the past 20 years.

Thibaudet, who resides in Los Angeles and Paris, is back with the Minnesota Orchestra this week to play the world premiere of James MacMillan's new Piano Concerto No. 3 ("The Mysteries of Light").

Also on the program is Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 1 and Enescu's Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 (not to be confused with Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody").

Thibaudet, ever the willing ambassador, spoke with us by phone from his Paris digs a few weeks ago, after playing a concert the night before.

Q What do you look forward to with Osmo Vänskä on the podium?

A He's a fantastic accompanist. You can be a great conductor and be an OK accompanist, but he is fabulous. Which means he listens to me and is very flexible.

Q Will you pick your piano once you get here?

A: I always do a piano selection. I haven't been in Minneapolis recently and I can't remember off the top of my head, but often we have a choice between a Hamburg Steinway [made at the company's German factory] and a New York Steinway. Orchestra Hall looks spacious and you want a bigger piano with a sound that cuts like a laser to the last row. I've become friends with most of the piano technicians around the world.

Q: You listen to colleagues. What are you looking for in a great piano performance?

A The sound is the greatest characteristic. This is the DNA of a pianist, like his driver's license or passport. It's what makes him or her unique. The sound you produce is absolutely personal. I think of great pianists who sounded like a cathedral but it was never harsh, never brutal. And at the end of the day, the most important thing is the emotion. Because you can be flashy if you play Rachmaninoff or Liszt but even more than the technique, the music must move you, make you sad, happy. That's why you go to concerts. Sometimes I leave the hall and it takes me a little time to come back down to Earth. That, to me, is the greatest concert -- and I don't care if there were wrong notes. That's beyond the point.

Q You'll be doing a new work by Scottish composer James MacMillan. Have you talked it over with him, or Osmo?

A I haven't. I really wanted to, but it's really my fault. It's good in a way that I prepare the piece with my own eyes, looking at it and see how I feel and what I want to do with it. We'll have rehearsals and if there is anything wrong with it, he will tell us and that's great.

Q What have you discovered about the piece?

A Faith is very important in [MacMillan's] life and work and this piece reflects that. It's very close to my heart. I've played a lot of Messiaen. I was very close to him and he was also an incredibly faithful person. And I find that spirituality in James' music as, well, very mysterious, very atmospheric. It's got an incredible scope of dynamics and big moments that are very difficult technically. It's quite a journey to go through that concerto.

Q MacMillan has mentioned the conflict between soloist and orchestra in performance. What's your take?

A Obviously, a conflict of balance. I have one instrument and cannot compete with 80, 100 musicians. This is what we will discover when we start rehearsing. People have to remember that the soloist is not always the soloist. Some passages, the soloist is accompanying the cello section or the oboe, the clarinet that has the theme. We don't always have the theme. So we should not be completely crazy about "Oh, can you hear me there, can you hear me?" I don't see it as a fight. I really see that playing with an orchestra is chamber music on a bigger scale.

Q You're in Paris. I would think in winter you might prefer Los Angeles.

A Tell me about it. This winter was very good -- through half of January I was in all warm places. There are important places where it is cold and I play because those are important concerts.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299