The prince of adaptation

Richard Clayderman is bringing his piano interpretations of popular music to our shores for the third time.

Richard Clayderman 88 (photo credit: )
Richard Clayderman 88
(photo credit: )
You may not know the name Richard Clayderman, but if you've ever been in an elevator or a dentist's waiting room, chances are you've heard his music. One of the most successful instrumental recording artists in the world, with reported record sales in excess of 70 million, the French pianist is a testament to the adage that music can soothe the savage beast. His easy-listening, romantic interpretations of pop standards like "Yesterday," "The Sound of Silence" and the catalogs of ABBA and The Carpenters have become as well-known as the original versions, and when you add a helping of French chansons, and popular piano works of Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart, you've got a 30-year career that's still going strong. Just ask David Letterman. When Clayderman appeared once on the Late Night show ahead of a US tour, Letterman attempted to humorously deflate the pianist's reputation as a household name by making a random telephone call to a home in Norway. The family not only knew of Clayderman, but owned several of his albums. But the scenario might have turned out differently and the 55-year-old Clayderman might have ended up a wild-haired, synthesizer-based progressive rock keyboardist, if it hadn't been for a 1976 phone call from French musical producer Olivier Toussaint. Born Philippe Pagès to a piano teacher, Clayderman started studying piano at age six, and he was accepted to Conservatoire de Paris in Paris at age 12. "I was happy studying classical music, but I was also attracted by what I was hearing on the radio," Clayderman told The Jerusalem Post from his home outside of Paris. "I wanted to do something different, so when I was 17, I started playing in bands with some friends. I found it more satisfying. I really liked Rick Wakeman [of Yes] and Keith Emerson [of Emerson Lake and Palmer, who both combined classical and progressive rock in a theatrical, physical manner]. I was really into progressive rock and using a lot of synthesizers." At that time, his father was becoming seriously ill and was unable to support his son financially. So, in order to earn a living, Clayderman found work as an accompanist and session musician to such popular French musicians as Michel Sardou, Thierry LeLuron and Johnny Halliday. TOUSSAINT'S CALL changed everything. The producer and his partner, Paul de Senneville, were looking for a pianist to record a gentle piano ballad that de Senneville had composed as a tribute to his newborn daughter, "Adeline." The 23-year-old Pagès got the job, beating out 20 other hopefuls. The single became an instant success, selling 22 million copies in 38 countries. Toussaint became Pagès's manager, changed the performer's stage name to Richard Clayderman (based on his great-grandmother's name) and the pianist quickly became known around the world, in former US first lady Nancy Reagan's words, as "the prince of romance." With dozens of albums to his credit, Clayderman has been adept at identifying the most suitable material to adapt, based on both classical and popular sources. "I decide on the music to perform and record together with Alan, my manager. One of us will come up with an idea like 'Let's do an album of Carpenters songs.' It's one of my delights to adapt a good song to the piano using my musical sensibilities. The results have always been interesting," he said. Decidedly out of step with the times, Clayderman's music - usually performed with orchestral accompaniment - has been compared to other instrumental pianists like Yanni and Roger Williams. Critics claim it lacks heart and soul, a charge that Clayderman shrugs off without rancor. "It's been 30 years since I've been performing, and I'm fine with the criticism. I know that I'm still able to give concerts and put out albums that people enjoy," he said. "If the music is easy to listen to - in airports or restaurants or cars - that's okay, there's nothing wrong with that. There are a lot of fans coming to concerts and it's not just background music. We get pretty lively, and they're not complaining." INDEED, THEY'RE not. Clayderman has achieved something virtually no other French act has ever done: a truly international career as a best-selling recording artist and concert performer. And that includes some unlikely places, like China. Some Chinese music teachers even attribute the increase in the number of piano students since the 1980s to the popularity of Clayderman's music. For Clayderman's third visit to Israel, he'll be performing with the 20-piece Ra'anana String Symphonette in two concerts, at the Shuni Fortress in Binyamina on September 5 and at Tel Aviv's Heichal Hatarbut the next night. Clayderman finds that playing with different accompaniment adds a vital element of freshness to his shows. "I prefer to play with musicians, that's natural. Sometimes I use a big orchestra, and sometimes just a string trio. I just feel more comfortable being up there with other musicians. It makes the music more lively," he said. Clayderman plans to arrive in Israel two days prior to the shows to rehearse with the string section, whose members are already poring over the sheet music forwarded to them. "We'll see what happens when we get together, and see what kind of ambiance we can create. I'm very excited," he said. When he's at home between tours, Clayderman says he practices his piano playing between two and four hours a day, often learning new material. "I try to change the repertoire in every country we go to, and after Israel, we travel to perform in Brazil and India," he said, adding that his sessions aren't all about work. "It depends on my mood; every once in a while, I'll sit down and play some ragtime or boogie woogie." When he's not sitting at the ivory himself, Clayderman finds enjoyment in listening to what other keyboardists are doing. "Of course, I love Elton John and Billy Joel. I've recorded a lot of their songs in my own style," he said. "And I love listening to jazz keyboardists like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. It's not my style, but I really enjoy it." And when he really wants to get wild, he still has his old ELP records to dust off.