Pianist's Passions Span Music, America and Wolves French-born Helene Grimaud is busy this season. She has a new CD, Reflection, and her autobiography, Wild Harmonies, has been published in English. The works explore the pianist's different loves, in both her musical and personal life.

Pianist's Passions Span Music, America and Wolves

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

(Soundbite of piano)

And playing Rachmaninoff on the piano in our studio, that's Helene Grimaud.

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SIEGEL: The 36-year-old French born pianist was here a couple of weeks ago in the midst of a remarkable season, even for her. She has a new CD out on which she plays the 19th Century romantic music of Brahms, Robert Schumann and Schumann's wife and fellow composer, Clara.

Next month, she'll play her first recital at Carnegie Hall. And her book has been published in English, translated from French. It's called Wild Harmonies: A Life of Music and Wolves. Grimaud loves wolves, and she runs a wolf rescue center north of New York Center.

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SIEGEL: When Helene Grimaud was here, we talked about America, about wolves, but mostly about music and she read passages from her book.

Ms. HELENE GRIMAUD (Pianist, Author): The piano is an incomparable instrument when it is touched by a musician in whom nothing of the pianist remains. Then it is music's most beautiful tool. The musician infuses it with his own song.

At the keyboard, the invoked music emerges. The musical outline takes on color and wings. It is a vibrant reading of the spirit, resonant in its senses, touched by the heart.

SIEGEL: This is what you're feeling when you're playing at your best, you're absent. You're disappeared into the piano?

Ms. GRIMAUD: You're both absent and incredibly aware at the same time, so it's - I guess it's a state of reconciliation of opposites.

SIEGEL: Of presence and absence?

Ms. GRIMAUD: Indeed.

SIEGEL: Because you have to be present enough for your entire body to remember this entire piece and to not falter.

Ms. GRIMAUD: Yes. But at the same time, you want to relinquish control, to be totally free to take risks to let whatever may be around inspire you and to also connect into the audience present so you can reach this state of, you know, shared freedom.

SIEGEL: When I've interviewed you in the past, I have not asked you about the wolves, which you write about a great deal in your book. So I want you to talk about the wolves now.

Ms. GRIMAUD: Yes, well, believe it or not, I was actually thankful that you didn't ask me the last couple of times.

SIEGEL: Why? Wolves are very important to you.

Ms. GRIMAUD: It is. It is essential to me and hopefully not only to me, and that's the purpose for the wolf conservation center, and at the same time, if there isn't enough quality time to delve into the subject, then too often it is then perceived as, you know, the pianist and her wolves and that's completely beside the point.

SIEGEL: As an eccentricity, it might be heard as.

Ms. GRIMAUD: Yes or, you know, then you can't really go into the real reasons why the place exists, what the roles are and why it should matter to everyone, so.

SIEGEL: But this has been something that's meant a great deal to you since you encountered - if I have this right - a she-wolf in Tallahassee, Florida.

Ms. GRIMAUD: That's right. That's right. Her name was Alawa, and you know, as with those sorts of pivotal moments, you never know if they were coincidental or if they just look like a coincidence, but in fact they're not. And usually what follows those encounters is significant to alter the course of your existence. And then you have to think that it happened for a reason.

And she was so different from any domestic canine I had ever met before. She was so complex and intense and expressive and intriguing in so many ways. So paranoid, also, and I really felt there was something there, and actually it was the connection with her that motivated me to get behind the cause, actually the plight of the species.

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SIEGEL: Helene Grimaud is from Aix-en-Provence in France. She was a stubborn, stunning, strong willed teenager when she dropped out of the Paris Conservatory. She arrived in America at age 21. She didn't know English, so she prepared by watching American movies. This was before she had achieved stardom as a concert and recording artist and before she was infatuated with wolves.

As Helene Grimaud writes in her book, the connection she felt to America was instinctive and powerful.

Ms. GRIMAUD: I couldn't say at what moment on what day or at what hour of that American tour I knew that I would never return to live in France. The idea came to me gradually, perhaps because in city after city, from concert hall to interview, I felt like I was a musician, a respected professional pianist.

I had the feeling of being accepted, far from gossip and questions, protected from a reputation that had sprung up without my knowing it after I had deserted the Conservatory.

In the United States, I was no longer out of step. No one found me strange. The question was whether I played well, whether I was good and musically compelling. Nobody cared about the rest. Since they have no traditions even though they have a particular way of life, Americans are not snobbish, and paradoxically, although they are capable of marveling at everything, they are never astonished.

SIEGEL: Capable of marveling at everything but are never astonished. What do you mean by that?

Ms. GRIMAUD: Well, it is hard to - I couldn't think of a better sentence to say it. And again, the two are not incompatible. It's true that they have this beautiful - I don't know if it's naivety or childlike enthusiasm - but at the same time, they've seen everything because there is probably such tolerance of various cultures and the fact that people let other people be.

SIEGEL: And at some point, you realized you were leaving behind your young life in Paris and whatever people thought of you there.

Ms. GRIMAUD: Yes. I knew clearly that I needed to do this. I couldn't have said why. And it was one of these things that the instinct moves you to do. So intuitively you know that before anything else happens, this is the (unintelligible) condition.

SIEGEL: And you go back to see your family in Provence?

Ms. GRIMAUD: Yes. Not often enough, unfortunately, but of course it's a wonderful region. And my leaving it wasn't a rejection of the culture or the area or anything like this. It was more of a sense of lack of membership.

And when I first came to this country, of course, this sense of lack of membership ceased to matter somehow.

SIEGEL: Ceased to matter? You were moving from one tenement to another and in New York City for a year, it sounds like, you were the ultimate non-member when you came to New York as I read it.

Ms. GRIMAUD: Yes, but in a way, that's probably the best path to finding yourself and to creating an environment that's propitious to realizing your potential.

SIEGEL: Being utterly isolated.


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SIEGEL: This is Grimaud playing Robert Schumann's piano concerto on her latest CD, Reflection. The music on this CD is by Robert and Clara Schumann and by Johannes Brahms, three classical composers who loved and inspired one another. Grimaud plays with a cellist, with a mezzo soprano and with orchestra.

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SIEGEL: The CD, she says, is about love and it's typical of her recordings. They are thematic, organized works. Behind the album there is an idea.

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SIEGEL: Is it your idea? Did someone come to you with the concept of the album? How does it develop?

Ms. GRIMAUD: No, I think I wouldn't do too well if someone came - sell, it's not that I'm hermetic to suggestions. I mean, if somebody suggests something that somehow resonates inwardly, then of course I could be convinced to do it. But no, I mean, definitely these were my ideas. They were very close to me. In the case of Schumann, Brahms, actually one person from the house said well, do you realize that Schumann is the least selling of all composers?

SIEGEL: Is that right?

Ms. GRIMAUD: I had no idea, and I though oh well, point taken. Nevertheless, let's proceed. And of course, even that person was totally willing to proceed and loved the idea of, you know, exploring the notion of muse and of beautiful relationship between these three wonderful artists and human beings.

So, because it is, it's about love, but it's about love in the larger sense and, you know, love for life and reinventing yourself and the very existence of one individual being the source of inspiration for the other two. And you know, this love was fruitful. I mean, that's what makes the music so fantastic.

SIEGEL: When I was reading your book and trying to understand the connection between music and wolves, apart from the fact that they're two things that you love and you're very deeply involved with, I felt that I finally found the topic sentence of the book, or the passage, when you wrote, "I had the wolves, I had music. I had the music of the wolves under the moon, and my playing held the animality that safeguards the artist."

Ms. GRIMAUD: That's right. And in fact, you know, sometimes it's interesting because people have expressed - I don't know if it's skepticism or another appropriate word for it - but they say well, it seems a bit incompatible, wild animals and an artistic profession. What do the two have to do together?

But in fact, if you look at the German Romantic movement, one of the founding precepts of it was that, you know, our real connection to nature and how that's where redemption is to be found and nature is the ultimate muse. And in fact, I think that nature and the arts, but more specifically music, are the most direct path to the spiritual world.

SIEGEL: So these two spheres of activity, the ultimate natural, the wolves who've been brought to northern Westchester County and the Steinway, on which you will play music of high European culture, come together at some point.

Ms. GRIMAUD: They absolutely do. And again, if you look at it from the angle of German Romanticism and this theory of universalism that, you know, speaks of all disciplines of our existence taking root in a global intuition, in a way -this is exactly how - this is what's going on here.

SIEGEL: Helene Grimaud, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Ms. GRIMAUD: Thank you, thank you.

SIEGEL: Helene Grimaud's memoir is called Wild Harmonies: A Life of Music and Wolves.

(Soundbite of piano)

SIEGEL: This is a Brahms rhapsody from her new CD, Reflection. You can find my previous interviews with her at our Web site, NPR.org.

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