Thirty years ago people probably would have said pianist Helene Grimaud "plays like a man." That's because the 24-year-old French musician often chooses muscular pieces once considered practically off-limits to women -- such as Brahms' First Piano Concerto, which she performs this week with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. And she plays them with a passionate lack of inhibition that would have been hard to accept before the feminist revolution of the 1960s.
"Some people may still be surprised that a woman [pianist] should have strength," says Grimaud, whose name is usually mentioned alongside that of the Russian Evgeny Kissin when critics talk about the most gifted younger pianists. "But power at the piano doesn't come from the physique, but from the brain. It's not about how big you are; it's about what you are as a human being."
Hard as it may be to think of Grimaud as a man -- with her lovely face, pre-Raphaelite-like tresses and slender figure -- that's what she wanted to be when she was a child.
"I always felt like a boy," the pianist says in near-perfect English in a recent telephone conversation from Tallahassee, Fla., where she lives with her American boyfriend. "All people carry both feminine and masculine characteristics. When I was a girl, I didn't like girls' toys, what girls played with and what they talked about. I just felt different."
She's still different.
"Helene's a very individual player who goes her own way and does her own thing," says BSO music director David Zinman, who has worked with Grimaud in Europe. "Very exciting is the only way I can describe her. She has a real personality that audiences will feel the moment she walks out on stage. She'll rank among the great pianists with Annie Fischer and Martha Argerich; like them she's a free spirit who doesn't care a whit for her career or about conventional expectations."
One scarcely expects the pets Grimaud keeps. The pianist and her boyfriend, Kenneth Keseker, a bassoonist who teaches at Florida State University, share their home with four full-blooded timber wolves. She is quick to add that no one should consider such pets unless they live in circumstances like hers, which include a large house located on several isolated acres in the woods and enough time to devote to them.
"It just happened and it just grew," Grimaud says of her interest in wolves. She befriended the pet wolf of an acquaintance, and the animal eventually became so attached to her that it howled whenever she departed. The wolf's owner had little choice but to give her to the pianist.
Grimaud is passionate about these nearly extinct animals who once roamed freely from far north of the Arctic Circle almost to the Equator. She's read everything she could about them; she's established contacts with biologists who study them; and she's active in the campaign to abolish hunting them from airplanes for sport. She acquired three more wolves this year when a Minnesota zoo could not keep all the cubs in a recent litter.
"I'm convinced that if wolves survive into the 21st century, it will be because of people who raise them," Grimaud says.
Although she is comfortable with these wild creatures, Grimaud was most uncomfortable living in the nation reputed to have perfected the arts of civilization. The woman who is probably the greatest French pianist of her generation is not fond of France or of the French.
"I have always felt uncomfortable living [in France]," says Grimaud, a native of Aix en Provence, adding that her Jewish and Italian ancestry made her feel like an outsider. "I thought about living in Germany because the audiences are so knowledgeable. But I didn't care for German regimentation; when people don't cross against the red at 2 a.m., when there isn't a car in sight, something's wrong. I loved London, but there is so much to do that I would never get any work done. I liked Scandinavia -- so safe and clean -- but it's too far away from everything."
She settled on the United States when she fell in love with her boyfriend on her first tour here five years ago. Such decisions -- in which she has listened to her heart -- help explain what has been an unconventional career.
She's a former child prodigy -- she entered the Paris Conservatory at 12 and won a Grand Prix du Disque, the French equivalent of a Grammy, at 15. Paradoxically, she was also a relative latecomer to music. Grimaud began the piano when she was 9 -- long past the age when prodigies such as Evgeny Kissin (who was playing preludes and fugues from Bach's "The Well Tempered Clavier" at 3) have attained mastery.
"My background could not be more different than Kissin's," Grimaud says quietly. "He's still traveling with his teacher; I've been without one since I was 16."
Unlike Kissin, perhaps the last great musical product of the Soviet educational system, Grimaud fought the system almost from the moment she entered it.