Sunday, November 05, 2006

A Pianist Harmonizes With Wolves


Hélène Grimaud and residents of the Wolf Conservation Center, in South Salem, N.Y., which she helped found. She divides her time between the center and her classical music career. (Photo: Susan B. Markisz)

Today's New York Times features an article about French pianist Hélène Grimaud (registration required) and the Wolf Conservation Center she helped establish in New York state in 1999.

She will appear with Paavo and the Cincinnati Symphony January 18, 19, and 20, 2007 at Music Hall playing Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, which is described in this article as possibly her favorite piece.
...Three of the ambassador wolves can be seen in a striking photograph on the dust jacket of “Wild Harmonies,” which shows them greeting Ms. Grimaud after a long trip, one nuzzling each of her ears; the other, her chin. It was a spontaneous moment, she said, not something that could be staged.

Her advocacy work has aroused a certain skepticism in the classical music world. Some have suggested that she’s in it as much for her own image as for the wolves’. But surely there are easier — and safer — ways to gain publicity. With her well-defined features and dreamily expressive blue eyes, for example, Ms. Grimaud could easily have followed the glamour route of the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and others. Instead, she tends to play down her looks, at least onstage. At a recent Carnegie Hall concert with the NHK Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo, she appeared in an understated black pantsuit and a severe hairstyle.

Far from promoting her pianistic career, she says, her preoccupation with wolves has to a considerable extent hampered it. “Only in the last three years was I able to start really focusing on my music completely,” she said, “because before that, the wolf center took so much time and energy.”

She has more than made up for lost time and has by now performed in most major halls around the world, with most major orchestras and conductors and with some of the finest chamber musicians, including the violinist Gidon Kremer.

But she suffered another setback late last year when she contracted microplasmic pneumonia, which led to chronic fatigue syndrome and an infection that traveled from the lungs to the heart. She lost consciousness regularly, she said, and was unable to leave Europe. She got a clean bill of health only in July.

The memoir, meanwhile, had appeared in France (“Variations Sauvages”) in 2003 and quickly become a best seller. The name “Variations” probably fits it better than “Harmonies,” for it consists of short segments in almost kaleidoscopic profusion, often alternating emotionally superheated autobiographical material with sober discussions of wolf lore. Ms. Grimaud presents herself as compulsive and an outsider — in her family, in the music world, in society — uncomfortable in her own skin. When, for example, she discovered the area where she would establish the wolf center, she writes, “it was Elsewhere, that Elsewhere I had always hoped for.” (A second book, “Leçons Particulières,” appeared in France last year.)

So what is the connection between classical music and wolves? On a personal level for Ms. Grimaud, they both offered salvation.

“Music converted me,” she writes. “It saved me.”

And of Alawa, the she-wolf: “She, too, saved my life.”

When she conceived the goal of a wolf center, it liberated her as a pianist, no longer a slave to the instrument, she writes. “I had become a wild woman.”

On a broader, impersonal level, Ms. Grimaud said that at a time when classical music and wolves are devalued if not endangered, with both “there’s no long-term hope for conservation without education.”

The English publication of “Wild Harmonies” by Riverhead Books, like the NHK concert, is part of a major American confluence of events for Ms. Grimaud, who maintains homes in South Salem and in Berlin. Deutsche Grammophon has just released a new CD, “Reflection,” with works by Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann and Brahms. And on Wednesday, the day after her 37th birthday, she gives a solo recital at Carnegie Hall, playing works by Bach, Chopin, Brahms and Rachmaninoff.

That Rachmaninoff work, the Second Sonata, takes Ms. Grimaud back to her first recording, made for the Japanese label Denon when she was 15 and fresh from undergraduate studies at the Paris Conservatory. Mercurial and headstrong, she made the recording in a state of euphoria but disavowed it after hearing it. Although it won a French Grand Prix du Disque the next year, she writes, “it took me four years — four years of purgatory — before I returned to Rachmaninoff.”

Ms. Grimaud was born in Aix-en-Provence in 1969. After her mother introduced her to a piece by Schumann, she took up the piano at 6 and made quick progress. She entered the Paris Conservatory at 13, the youngest student there at the time.

The other great interest of her youth was animals, starting with stuffed ones. Before the piano took over her life, she dreamed of becoming a veterinarian and living in a zoo, and then she wanted to be a biologist. “I was interested in primates,” she said, “not particularly in wolves, actually.”

Then came the encounter with Alawa, followed by a plunge into the wolf world. “I began to study ethology,” Ms. Grimaud writes. “I audited courses at the university, and I attended conferences. I traveled throughout America visiting wildlife reserves where specialists studied the biology and behavior of wolves.”

That avid curiosity has never waned. Ms. Grimaud is extremely well read in French, Russian and American literature as well as in history and philosophy. Asked what she was reading at the moment, she replied, “I’m rereading ‘The Third Chimpanzee’ by Jared Diamond and otherwise a lot of new biology papers that have come out in connection with new wolf discoveries from studies in Yellowstone.”

Ms. Grimaud’s musical passions are equally well defined, and as with the Rachmaninoff, they have changed little since her youth. Although she often starts her day with Bach, she spends most of her time immersed in the literature of High Romanticism.

She calls Chopin “my composer.” She loves his music of course, but being left-handed, she also loves him for having liberated the pianist’s left hand. “Chopin invented ambidextrous music,” she writes, “a tremendous door through which Liszt, Scriabin, Ravel and Fauré would subsequently pass.”

But perhaps her greatest affinity has always been for Brahms. She made precocious early recordings of music by this most unyouthful, un-French and unfeminine of composers. Those discs were her first introduction to many listeners, and a stunning one. “I loved his impetuous character,” she writes, “his torment and his furies, the emotional heartbreak and the relationship to the world he expressed so subtly in his contrapuntal music.”

The towering and daunting Brahms First Concerto seems to be her favorite work in that form. She recounts in the book that, though not much given to crying, she broke down on a plane once, several hours after having played it: “a delicious liberation from the incredible tension of the concert, from the sorrow that Brahms expressed so well, a sorrow that can strangle and suffocate you.”

On the “Reflection” CD, Ms. Grimaud takes her theme of love and loss from the historical moment when Brahms entered the household of Robert and Clara Schumann, comforting Clara through Robert’s mental decline and death, and becoming infatuated with Clara himself. In addition to songs by Clara and solo and chamber music by Brahms, it includes Schumann’s Piano Concerto, with the Dresden Staatskapelle conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Mr. Salonen, who has worked with Ms. Grimaud often, said last week: “She has a very rare combination of a strong intellectual side and a strong emotional side. She has a very detailed concept worked out ahead of time, but in the concert she is very spontaneous and very natural.”

Ms. Grimaud is not a particular champion of contemporary music, although her earlier thematic recording for Deutsche Grammophon, “Credo,” included works by Arvo Pärt and John Corigliano alongside Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata and Choral Fantasy. In any case, she said, a contemporary piece has to pass the same test she sets for any other work: “It has to be something I can’t live without.”

Like wolves.

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