Running With Wolves

Pianist Helene Grimaud's offbeat nature includes a muscular Brahms/Beethoven repertoire and the guys out back, howling in harmony.


RIDGEFIELD, Conn. -- Helene Grimaud is headed outside to feed her pets.

But the phone rings.

"Thank you," she says after listening to the caller for a moment. "But I'm just too busy."

"That was Vogue, she says. "Someone named Annie Leibovitz wanted to come up to photograph me with the guys."

Again she starts to take lunch out to the "guys"; again the phone rings.

It's the producer of National Public Radio's "Performance Today." Grimaud politely explains that she's too busy to make an appearance on the program.

"Let's go," she says. "The guys must be hungry."

She pulls a large package out of the refrigerator and walks outside into a snow-covered hillside 50 miles north of New York City.

The "guys" -- actually, two males and a female -- are overjoyed to see Grimaud, especially because she's got food with her. Once she enters their three-acre enclosure, they leap to lick her face and that of her visitor, pull their lunch out of Grimaud's hands and run off to devour it. The youngest, 9-month-old Lucas, gets the largest piece. It's a deer's head, and within seconds, one can hear its skull begin to crack between Lucas' powerful jaws. Two-year-old Apache busily enjoys part of the deer's hind-quarters, leaving the 4-year-old female, Kyla, to settle for part of a front leg.

The "guys" are full-blooded timber wolves.

Helene Grimaud is not like other pia- nists -- and not just because she collects road kill and has learned how to skin and butcher it for her pets.

Thirty years ago, people probably would have said that Grimaud "plays like a man." The 28-year-old French musician often chooses muscular pieces once considered practically off-limits to women -- pieces such as Beethoven's Sonatas Nos. 30 and 31 and Brahms' Sonata No. 2, which she'll perform tonight in Shriver Hall at the Johns Hopkins University.

Fortissimo, yes

And she plays such pieces with a passionate lack of inhibition that would have been hard to accept before the feminist revolution of the 1960s. One music critic actually dubbed her "one pianist who has yet to meet the fortissimo she doesn't like."

"Some people may still be surprised that a woman [pianist] should have strength," says Grimaud, whose name is usually mentioned alongside that of Evgeny Kissin and Leif Ove Andsnes when other, less hostile, 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 and slender figure -- that's what she wanted to be when she was a child.

"I always felt like a boy," the pianist says. "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 is certainly unlike other French pianists. For example, few of them have ever played so much Brahms. French playing is characterized by a greater reliance upon the hands and wrists than in the German and Russian schools -- which rely more heavily upon the arms and shoulders for the production of sound -- and may not be suitable for Brahms.

"While it works for certain light things, French playing does not work for composers who need weight, as Brahms does," Grimaud says.

The deceptively frail-looking pianist uses the full force of her arms, shoulders and torso to produce an enormous, down-to-the-bottom-of-the-keys sound. And her playing is stormy, passionate and intuitive rather than cool, precise and logical in the French manner. Little wonder, then, that Grimaud regarded herself (and was regarded in turn) as an outsider at the Paris Conservatory in the early 1980s.

"They thought I was rebellious just for the sake of being rebellious," Grimaud says. "I thought their insistence on doing everything as it had always been done was an absurdity."

"Helene's a very individual player who goes her own way and does her own thing," says former Baltimore Symphony music director David Zinman, one of Grimaud's favorite collaborators.

"Very exciting is the only way I can describe her. She has a real personality -- audiences feel it 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."

Perhaps it is the pianist's free spirit that makes her identify so passionately with wolves, who roamed freely over North America until they were hunted almost to extinction. 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.

On the day "Performance Today" had asked her to appear, she was meeting with Defenders of Wildlife, an organization headquartered in Washington devoted to preserving animals in the wild from human predation.

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