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FAST TRACK : A Pianist Trained, but Not Ingrained, in France


"I am not a French pianist," insists the Aix-en-Provence-born, Paris-trained Helene Grimaud, with a hint of attitude one suspects is characteristic.

The 23-year-old pianist, who makes her first Hollywood Bowl appearance Aug. 17, says her parents are both university professors living in France, but "Italian and Jewish" rather than French. But her career was founded in France, while her mentors--Daniel Barenboim, Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich, among others--have been international in orientation.

To compound any confusion on this subject, Grimaud also liberally criticizes her own musical education, plus the "French conservatory mentality"--a system that encourages pianists to play "a lot of Chopin, but otherwise nothing between Scarlatti and Stockhausen"--and the bad advice she says she got at the Paris Conservatoire: She was forbidden by her teacher to enter the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow but did so anyhow, becoming a semifinalist.

Obviously, she is a nonconformist.

And, according to Anne Parsons, general manager of Hollywood Bowl, who engaged Grimaud for her local debut, "an extraordinarily talented pianist, one of real gifts and musical stature--a major talent, in my opinion."

Being a musician of no clear nationality might explain Grimaud's collected discography, which seems to specialize in Brahms, Schumann and Rachmaninoff, whose Second Sonata the pianist recorded when she was 15.

Now a veteran of several successful United States tours, beginning in 1990, the belle Helene plays Rachmaninoff's popular Second Concerto, with Yakov Kreizberg and the L.A. Philharmonic next week. On the phone from her current home base in Florida, she says she went through a Rachmaninoff period, a Ravel period and now spends a lot of time with the music of Brahms.

"I can't be the judge of what I should or will eventually specialize in. I go in phases and cycles. Right now it is Brahms."

Does she have pianistic idols? She mentions three famous, now departed, keyboard icons: Vladimir Horowitz, Julius Katchen (who died seven months before Grimaud was born) and Rudolf Serkin.

Perhaps partly as a reaction to her conservatory experiences, Grimaud stays away from new music, saying that she knows "a number of composers socially, but I do not play their music professionally." Again, she seems to resist what others would choose for her.

"At school, we were forced to play contemporary works a lot. They seemed to take up half our time."

Asked what she expects to be doing 10 years from now, Grimaud replies: "I have no precise idea. I feel if I try to make a plan and follow it, I might miss opportunities or fortunate accidents that can happen along the way. I don't think much about career . I follow my own pace, letting intuition guide me."

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