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Primal force drives French pianist Helene Grimaud

After a series of physical ailments, she has recovered and taken stock of her life. She says her music and love of wolves have saved her. She returns Wednesday to Walt Disney Concert Hall for the first time in more than four years.

November 03, 2012|By James C. Taylor
  • Helene Grimaud opened a 6-acre conservation center for wolves in 1999. She has a solo recital at Disney Hall on Wednesday.
Helene Grimaud opened a 6-acre conservation center for wolves in 1999.… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

NORTH SALEM, N.Y. — Hélène Grimaud does not back down.

This has always been the case for the French pianist, who returns to Walt Disney Concert Hall for a solo recital on Wednesday, ever since she was the youngest student in her class at the Paris Conservatory and refused to perform pieces that didn't interest her. (This rebelliousness may have rankled students and faculty, but it also landed her a recording contract during her second year, at age 15.)

Since then, she has persevered criticism (a prominent French critic, in particular, who once described her as "a little goat with no taste"), defied New York City laws by keeping a wolf as a pet in a downtown apartment ("Remember, it was a young pup," she says, "so it really doesn't count"), and clashed with famous conductors (Daniel Barenboim when she was 17, Claudio Abbado just last year over the matter of a Mozart cadenza, when he wanted to use the original and she preferred one written in the 20th century).

"It's true, I've had this impatient, impulsive side," Grimaud says, sitting at the dining room of her new Westchester County home with a giant German shepherd named Chico at her feet, "but I'm usually driven by the big picture."

Grimaud's defiance was put to the test in Los Angeles five years ago. In April 2006, she was scheduled to play Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but had to cancel just days before due to pneumonia. The following January, she canceled a solo recital at Disney Hall citing back problems.

These physical setbacks hit the pianist particular hard: "I played with the orchestra regularly when Esa-Pekka Salonen was music director, I was there pretty often." (In her 1993 debut at the Hollywood Bowl, Times critic Martin Bernheimer praised the then-23-year-old Grimaud as the rare wunderkind who "really seems to know what she's doing.")

Her January recital was rescheduled for Disney Hall that June, and as it neared Grimaud felt in good health. "I had a couple of treatments, I was on medication. So I thought, OK, it should be fine," she recalls. "The first piece of the program was the Bach Chaconne. It's a pretty athletic piece of music. It's 17 minutes, and I was so happy out there. I felt great playing it, and I thought, 'This is going to be a great evening.' And then it happened."

Grimaud suffered an episode of heart arrhythmia on stage. "I felt my entire being sort of sinking," she says, "But I thought, 'OK, I have to keep it together.' The piece was my lifeboat."

"For a while, nothing seemed amiss," wrote Times reviewer Rick Schultz, adding that Grimaud "managed to hold the musical line, and the spell cast on the audience seemed largely unbroken."

Grimaud refused to quit: "I had to finish until the end. I was hoping maybe by the end it will be better. But, no, it wasn't getting any better. So that was that."

The rest of the concert was canceled, and that began a long period of rest and recuperation for Grimaud. Tuesday's recital marks her return to the Disney Hall stage.

Of the last five years, she says: "A lot has happened. It's probably been the phase in my musical existence, not to say personal existence … where I've done the most growing, the most evolving."

There are stories of the young Grimaud spending hours rearranging furniture in hotel rooms, and during the years she lived in New York City, she was infamous for changing apartments every three months. But Grimaud has settled down this year (after what she calls "27 years spent on the road in gypsy mode") buying a home here in the sleepy but posh hamlet north of New York City.

"I mean I probably describe it as this phase of life where you finally catch up with who you really are," she says in perfect English with only a hint of a French accent. "Things happen that make you realize — and health-related things always make you realize — and it's a terrible cliché, but — life is too short to be bothered with things that aren't you, exchanges which aren't genuine, or any of that stuff. And it does make a big difference."

It's no coincidence that her home is near the 6-acre Wolf Center, which she opened in 1999. (Google "Helene Grimaud" and one of the first words that comes up after her name is "wolves.") In her 2003 autobiography, "Wild Harmonies" (which has a picture of the pianist being licked by three white wolves as its jacket cover), she writes of an incident with a wolf in Florida that inspired her to open the center devoted to the education and conservation of the endangered species canus lupus: "She came up to my hand and sniffed it. I merely stretched out my fingers, and all by herself, she slid her head and shoulders under my palm. I felt a shooting spark, a shock, which ran through my entire body … which awakened in me a mysterious singing, the call of an unknown, primeval force."

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