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In the Press: Her Way-A pianist of strong opinions

The New Yorker profiles Helene Grimaud, co-founder of the Wolf Conservation Center in New York, November 7, 2011 (posted 12/22/11)

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by D. T. Max

Note: Excerpts from the article published in The New Yorker are below. To read the entire article, click here.

One day in July, Hélène Grimaud was practicing the piano in a hotel room in Munich. The Palace, where she was staying, is near the Prinzregententheater, and is unusually accommodating of classical musicians; Room 606 comes equipped with a Steinway. Grimaud needed to work on the piano part to Mozart’s concert aria “Ch’io mi scordi di te,” which she was scheduled to record the next day, for Deutsche Grammophon. The instrument, an old upright, was not well tuned, but that did not bother Grimaud, who does not fetishize refinement. … 

Grimaud doesn’t sound like most pianists: she is a rubato artist, a reinventor of phrasings, a taker of chances. “A wrong note that is played out of élan, you hear it differently than one that is played out of fear,” she says. She admires “the more extreme players . . . people who wouldn’t be afraid to play their conception to the end.” Her two overriding characteristics are independence and drive, and her performances attempt, whenever possible, to shake up conventional pianistic wisdom. … Grimaud also tries to move her audience. Emmanuel Pahud, a flautist who has played recitals with her, says, “She is a deep romantic who—probably the German language is more suitable—goes where the belly’s hurting.” …

Whenever Grimaud can manage, she doesn’t perform at all: she is at a conservation center for wolves that she co-founded, in 1999, in northeast Westchester County, where she helps care for the animals. Grimaud does not relish the stiffness of the classical world. In a 2004 photograph of her, prized on the Internet, she is rehearsing with an orchestra wearing what looks like a wife beater; more recently, she apologized to a music reporter for showing up for an interview smelling of deer meat. On some album covers, you don’t even see the piano; you just see her face, which is striking enough to withstand the kinds of closeup that the recording industry normally reserves for pop stars.

Grimaud grew up in Aix-en-Provence and was, by her own admission, “a fairly contrary child.” When her class was instructed to draw chickens, she drew pictures of wire mesh. Grimaud, whose parents taught Italian and Italian literature, dreamed of being a veterinarian or a public attorney, of “rectifying injustice.” …

One day when Grimaud was seven, her parents took her to a music-appreciation class. Each child was asked to hum the melody of Schumann’s “The Happy Farmer.” Grimaud did so with uncanny accuracy. The teacher advised Grimaud’s parents to start their daughter immediately on the piano. Her mother balked, as Grimaud remembers, afraid that all those hours at the piano weren’t likely to make her “more conforming or normal or lighthearted, or something.” Her father had no such worries; he arranged for an upright to be delivered to their house. It turned out that Grimaud didn’t need to dissipate her energy; she needed to focus it. In playing music, she finally met a task absorbing and complex enough to satisfy her. It felt “vivifying,” she remembers, to immerse herself in a world in which symmetry and order reigned. …

In the early nineties, Grimaud, then living in Tallahassee, met and grew friendly with a loner who lived on the outskirts of the city. He had a collection of automatic weapons that he let her shoot, and he kept a wolf as a pet. Its name was Alawa. The first time Grimaud met Alawa, she recalls, it lay down on its side and allowed her to caress the length of its body. “I’ve never seen her do that,” the owner said of the wolf. “Even with me.” Grimaud got to know Alawa and was flattered by the trust the wolf seemed to give her. (Grimaud now thinks that Alawa may have been a wolf-dog hybrid.)

Grimaud read about the plight of wolves, many species of which had been hunted nearly to extinction, and formed plans to open a center to protect them. She took a class on ethology and started saving her concert earnings, with an eye toward funding the project. She and Keesecker adopted a pair of wolves. A third animal, a wolf pup, wound up in the Alphabet City apartment she shared with her next boyfriend, a photographer named Henry Fair. “We were not supposed to say it was a wolf,” Stephanie Argerich, who house-sat for the couple at the time, recalls. “We were supposed to say it was a big dog.”

In 1997, Grimaud bought about six acres in South Salem, in Westchester County, and moved there. She hired workers, and helped them install fences and landscape hollows, so that they could be used as dens. In 1999, she opened a conservation and education center. In the past decade, the facility has become a considerable success and a respected part of the movement to protect wolves. It has sixteen Mexican wolves—only some fifty of the animals exist in the wild in the U.S. Grimaud remains both active on its board and involved in its daily work. Her taste for liverwurst, she says, came from mixing it with pills for the animals. …

Late one summer evening, Grimaud was in South Salem, at the nursery of the wolf center. She was spending the night, in order to bond with some cubs that had just arrived. Her attraction to the animals was not hard to explicate. Wolves are misunderstood outsiders, singled out by humans for centuries as the animal that deserves to be whipped. The center has seven thousand visitors a year, many of them in school groups, but at night it is deserted, dark woods. “This place is really magical,” she said. “It has something special.”

Grimaud was sitting, cross-legged, on the ground while two eleven-week-old pups—Alawa, pale gray and named for the wolf she met in Florida, and Zephyr, black—raced around. Juvenile wolves do not have the disquieting lope of the adults; they seem like dog puppies, but with more pronounced snouts. In the next enclosure, Atka, a nine-year-old Arctic gray wolf, aimed a long, lamenting howl at the orange moon. “That’s a B-flat,” Grimaud said. Two Mexican wolves, in a nearby enclosure, joined in, several tones higher, glissando-ing down while the red wolves added a frenzied pizzicato.

Wolves form packs with well-defined jobs, and their members are coöperative and hierarchical, like the players in an orchestra. The animals howl to mark their territory, to scare off enemies, to embolden themselves for the hunt. “They give each other élan, courage, ‘Let’s get down to it,’ ” Grimaud said. But “the nicest function,” she added, “is rejoicing, what biologists call ‘social glue.’ Their howling sends a lot of positive interactive feeling flying around.” It’s not a bad definition of music. …

… Grimaud has spent a lifetime pushing for artistic control. “Compromise, it has to be said, was never my forte,” she said, adding, “You know, you always have choices. You can go with the flow because it’s easier or you can let your convictions guide your actions if you are prepared to face the consequences. And I preferred the latter. I thought, Life is too short.” …
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TO HELP GET MEXICAN GRAY WOLVES IN THE WOLF CONSERVATION CENTER AND OTHER FACILITIES RELEASED INTO THE WILD WHERE THEY BELONG-CLICK HERE

Photo of Helene Grimaud courtesy of Lefalher