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Saint Paul SundayFeatured Artist

Hélène Grimaud

Leader of the Pack
by Heidi Waleson
October 17, 1999

  Hélène Grimaud
  Hélène Grimaud

For the last two years, pianist Hélène Grimaud and her photographer boyfriend have lived in a small house an hour's drive outside New York City. It's convenient to area airports - Grimaud travels often to play with such ensembles as the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Orchestre de Paris - but the property also affords space for the pianist's other preoccupations: three British Columbian wolves, which she raised from infancy.

Apache, Lucas, and Kayla live in a two-acre enclosure surrounded by a high double fence. When Grimaud visits them, she dons padded overalls. Apache, a big white two-year-old male and leader of the pack, jubilantly bounds to Grimaud and leaps all over her, almost doglike in his delight; the other two hang back. "Wolves are like most wild creatures," Grimaud says. "They want to be left alone."

Grimaud, 28, is petite and intense, a self-confessed "control freak" who edits her own recordings, makes her own travel arrangements, and limits her concert engagements to those that will not take her away from her animals for more than 10 days a month. That coiled energy explodes in performances of stunning beauty and insight, such as the Beethoven Concerto No. 4, recently performed and recorded with the New York Philharmonic, that left the audience gasping for breath. It also fuels her passion for wolves, creatures that she believes have been unfairly demonized in literature and history.

The pianist's first encounter with the species was in Florida, with a female dog-wolf hybrid. "She was petrified of everything. She wasn't even comfortable with her owner," Grimaud recalls. "She was comfortable with me, though. I was the only person who could get close to her. I got interested in watching her behavior and seeing how she behaved so differently from the dogs." What was it that brought them together? Grimaud shrugs: "Chemistry, like the kind you have, or don't have, with a conductor or an audience."

Chemistry, too, brought Grimaud to the piano. Growing up in Aix-en-Provence, France, she was an "agitated" child, a trial to her teachers ("I was always finished first and would disturb the other students and ask inappropriate questions"), and a loner. Her parents tried her on sports, martial arts, and dance as outlets, but nothing worked - until music. "I had a lot of imagination," she says. "Real life wasn't good enough. If my problem was surplus physical energy, sports and dance would have done it, but it wasn't. It was obviously in my head. Music was mentally captivating." Grimaud progressed fast. She began studying at the Paris Conservatory at 13, played her first concerto concert at 14, and made her first recording a year later. She also finished her high-school studies and collected a bachelor's degree in ethology (the study of animal behavior) by correspondence.

The small living room of Grimaud's Westchester home is dominated by a large-screen television: a black Yamaha upright crouches modestly in the corner. Grimaud spends her concert earnings on her wolves, not a nice grand piano. She does most of her practicing in her head, anyway, a method that forestalls injury and makes for more freshness in concert. That mental strength also serves her with the wolves, which require complete attention when she is in their enclosure. "Once you enter their world as a member of the group, even a part-time member, you expose yourself to being challenged," she says. "Wolves are politically ambitious, and sometimes will try to get up a notch. You never want to be the super alpha over the group, but rather on an equal footing. It's a fine line."

©Heidi Waleson This article first appeared in Live Music, the magazine of the Minnesota Orchestra, in Summer 1999. Special thanks to Heidi Waleson, opera critic for The Wall Street Journal, for permission to reproduce this article.

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