Helene Grimaud: Quick Hits

Cerebral and passionate. Words often used by critics to describe pianist Helene Grimaud and her interpretations of Mozart, Liszt and Bartok. Having met her, we would now add: Enchanting. Grimaud looks like a French actress and speaks about her art with an almost child-like wonder. But there's a fierce intelligence at work and her performances provide "a glimpse of the transcendental," as one London reviewer put it.

During a stopover in New York on her current world tour, Grimaud spoke with SOUND TRACKS reporter Alexis Bloom, who notes that the concert pianist "has battled back from illness to play like a titan." Grimaud also took us to visit her Wolf Conservation Center, the other passion in her life.

Extended Curator's Notes

Helene Grimaud as a child, by her own account, she was restless and difficult. Her parents tried everything, to no avail. And then Helene Grimaud discovered the piano. It gave her an intense focus and she says it saved her life.

At the age of 13, she gained entry to the National Conservatory of Music in Paris, and made her first recording at 15.

Today, the 41-year-old French-born concert pianist is world renowned for her cerebral and passionate approach to playing the works of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Liszt . She plays with emotion and with a keen intelligence. Yet, there is also something ethereal about her and her music. She speaks with an almost childlike sense of magic and wonder about her art.

Along the way, she became enchanted by wolves, after encountering a wolf-dog mixed breed who belonged to a reclusive Vietnam veteran in Florida. She went on to co-found a wolf sanctuary and environmental education center in South Salem, New York. "The wolves keep me grounded," she says.

The title of her book says it best, "Variations Sauvages," translated in 2006 as "Wild Harmonies: A Life of Music and Wolves." Her dual passions.

Last year, Grimaud suffered a serious illness. She underwent surgery and chemotherapy for stomach cancer. Concerts were cancelled, recordings postponed. But Grimaud has endured and recovered. With a new sense of urgency, without wasting a minute, she recorded and released a new album, "Resonances," and last August began a demanding world tour that has taken her from Beijing and Tokyo to San Francisco and New York, and now on to Europe and Russia. She returns to the U.S. to play in Pittsburgh on May 13 and 14.

Multilingual, thoughtful, philosophical, Grimaud is an engaging person to interview. She looks like she should be a French actress and plays as if in a dream. Sound Tracks reporter Alexis Bloom came away deeply impressed.

"Helene Grimaud has one of the most intelligent faces I've ever encountered," says Bloom. "And a core of steel, having battled back from illness to play like a titan. And she's not exactly shying away from the epic pieces. She's hit the road big-time. It's obvious she loves a challenge."

The Liszt Sonata in B minor that Grimaud plays on her album and for us at Steinway Hall in New York is a monumental quest -- the longest sonata in one movement. When she speaks of it, Grimaud uses words like "primal," "raw power" and "demonic." She says it "gets into your skin and doesn't let go." In her "Quick Hits" performance, captured by director of photography Andy Bowley, Grimaud appears both masterful and possessed by the Liszt composition.

She's clearly a risk-taker, but she knows what she's doing. It's like the moment in our video when she smiles as a wolf licks her face through a chain-link fence. She would never try that with a wild wolf. But this is Atka, a wolf she helped raise, a wolf who knows her, a socialized "ambassador wolf" who greets the public at the conservation center. That scene did make us think of our earliest memories of wolves and classical music -- Sergei Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" in which the wolf is, of course, the feared villain. Not for Grimaud, a rebel who has turned the story upside down, letting humans appreciate the beauty and spirit of wild animals.

If the Liszt piece is dark and sometime dangerous, her Bartok is intense but softer, a note of optimism from a composer, she says, who took comfort in Romanian folk music.

Helene Grimaud, we discovered, is an artist who finds salvation in the demands of her music and takes comfort in the howling of wolves.

Visit Helene Grimaud's website.