September 18, 2009 / 12:44 PM / 10 years ago

Pianist Grimaud: Wolves are a way into music

BUCHAREST (Reuters Life!) - Helene Grimaud, the French pianist whose work to protect wolves is almost as famous as her music career, is unaware her compatriot Brigitte Bardot angered Romanians by trying to save the stray dogs of Bucharest.

“I didn’t know that,” Grimaud, 39, said before giving a concert in the Romanian capital when told about the years-long campaign by the screen goddess turned animal rights activist to have the city’s strays, which still haunt its back streets and parks, sterilized rather than put down.

But then Grimaud, although a native of Aix-en-Provence, that cradle of culture in the south of France, doesn’t identify strongly with her native country.

Born into a Sephardic Jewish family, she is a loner who embraced the piano at the age of nine to channel an excess of energy into something productive and, since being discovered internationally in her teens, has never looked back.

Here’s what she told Reuters about how conquering their fear of wolves could help people better appreciate classical music, why being left-handed can be a plus for a pianist and what it’s like to have synaesthesia, a condition in which people attribute and see colors in their mind for numbers, letters or music.

For the record, the powerful performance she gave on Thursday night for the Enescu Festival in Bucharest’s cavernous Palace Grand Hall of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra was bronze-hued.

Q: Why does someone who has a successful recital, concert and recording career run a Wolf Conservation Center in Westchester County, north of New York City?

A: I created the Wolf Conservation Center which I’m very proud of and I just finished speaking to someone who asked how much it took away from my music and to be honest I’d have to say a lot but I wouldn’t exchange it for anything in the world.

Q: But why wolves? They bite.

A: There’s such an incredible amount of misconception about them and most importantly because they’re the top predator of most northern ecosystems and as the top predator they are engineers of biodiversity. So they are actually a wonderful keystone for northern conservation efforts.

Q: You told an interviewer that if people could conquer their fear of wolves it might help them appreciate music.

A: People are afraid of things they don’t understand and there are people who think if they didn’t grow up being educated about classical music somehow it’s not for them. That’s a great shame because it’s not about the knowledge. Of course, I’m not going to sit here and tell you knowledge doesn’t increase pleasure but all you need is to open up your heart to be touched, to be stimulated — that’s what’s amazing about classical music.

Q: And for you — what did classical music do for Helene Grimaud, the rebellious child?

A: It helped me to channel this surplus of energy that I had which could be destructive... and I was lucky people didn’t push me because in my very contrary frame of mind it would have driven me the other way for sure. I was also lucky to have great teachers from the very beginning and to get the right advice at the right time. Sometimes you just have to be ready when luck presents itself.

Q: You are left-handed, or a “gauchere” as the French say, which some might think gives you an advantage in the bass line.

A: All I can tell you is it’s true the left hand is quite present in my playing, sometimes to the detriment of the right so I guess everything that is an advantage is also potentially a disadvantage...but maybe it’s a different way of thinking too — maybe it leads to a more intuitive approach to life, who knows?

Q: You see music in color, which composers from Scriabin to modern times have tried to bring to the concert hall, as a kind of classical music 3D. What’s it like?

A: It’s not every time I make or listen to music but it’s quite often and it’s powerfully evocative but I’m not sure it adds anything to the experience. If anything, it’s more an indication that the mind, body and soul are aligned — which of course is a beautiful thing because it’s so rare.

(Helene Grimaud’s recording of Bach transcriptions is on Deutsche Grammophon 4777978)

Writing by Michael Roddy

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