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Music

A piano is like a lion in the savannah, says pianist Helene Grimaud

Helene Grimaud's outstanding musicianship has won her much press, as has her spirited, independent mindset. She talked with DW about being a female performer, raising wolves and the occasional loneliness of her career.

Pianist Helene Grimaud

Helene Grimaud believes her work raising wolves enriched her music

Born in France in 1969, Helene Grimaud is recognized as one of the world's leading concert pianists. She has performed with many renowned orchestras and released more than ten original recordings. She is also an author, having published a book on a wildlife conservation project she co-founded called the Wolf Conservation Center.

At the 2010 Beethovenfest Bonn, Grimaud will perform in two concerts as the festival's Artist in Residence. She talked with DW about her relationship to music and her career.

The interview can also be heard on this and next week's "Inspired Minds" on DW Radio. Click on the link below.

DW: Is it true that Schumann was one of the first composers you heard - and that the moment was very decisive for you?

Helene Grimaud: Yes, that's very true. I'd heard Beethoven symphonies before, and they had a strong impact on me. But my first direct encounter with piano music was actually through Schumann's pieces, and that was, yes, instant.

How close do you feel to Beethoven when you're performing these piano concertos - to the person that we know about and the rebel he was?

It's the closest you can get to him. Sometimes I say that when we play Beethoven's music, more than with any other composer, it's like he's right there. Other colleagues have told me they share that sensation. And with every resurgence or brusque movement in the music, you feel him being right there, maybe making these frustrated movements himself. And one feels accompanied, carried - sometimes through difficult experiences, it's as if he's even more there.  It's absolutely wonderful.

Two hands play the piano

"Noble and lonely" characterizes her instrument, said Grimaud

When it comes to difficult experiences, is it sometimes frustrating as a pianist trying to achieve that singing line - the legato - that so many other instruments and the human voice seem to reach more easily?

Yes, it definitely is. Someone recently said to me, "It's so interesting, this piano - this instrument: there's so much that has to happen before music even starts to come out of it." I think that's absolutely true, and you do get distracted, I would say, which is also good.

There is so much going on with the piano: you have this polyphonic dimension, the middle voices, a vertical dimension as well as a horizontal one. Of course, it's also what makes it wonderful. I like the lonesome quality of the instrument as well - sort of like a lion in the savannah . Noble and lonely.

I want to jump now to a very important project of yours dealing with wildlife - the project of raising wolves in the US, about which you wrote a book. Did the experience change your relationship to your music?

Working with any wild animal is not dissimilar to the work that you do with a piece of music, in the sense that you have to be 100 percent in the moment - on all levels: intellectually, emotionally and psychologically.

As human beings, we're not tremendously gifted for living in the moment. We tend to constantly ruminate on the past or project ourselves into the future, and with animals, that's a dimension that does not exist, even though most animals have a memory and can certainly bear grudges. You learn a lot from that. It's a school of respect, of awareness. In that sense, it's been an incredible enrichment and a source of strength and inspiration. It was hard to leave. At the same time, the project was such a major distraction from my music.

Helene Grimaud plays the piano in New York

Grimaud senses a double standard in media coverage of male and female musicians

Something that strikes me about reviews of your music is that people so often comment about what you wear or how you look. I don't really see similar things written about male performers.

It's very annoying - especially for someone with my temperament because it's so irrelevant! And it's this unfortunate thing that sticks to being a woman. It has nothing to do with anything, and this is the very reason why I always said that being female is a disadvantage.

On the other hand, I'm extremely lucky, and I'm very aware of that. The dominant feeling throughout these 25 years of my profession is one of being very privileged. And so it's still a positive note which dominates the whole.

Is it lonely being a concert pianist - landing in places where you may not know anyone and giving recitals? Are you not at a stage in your career where you would like to be working constantly on projects with other musicians?

It definitely is. My schedule is about to get radically different because for most of October and November, I will just be playing solo recitals. It's sad, because there's so much rejoicing that goes on when you work with colleagues, and there's something so exhilarating about sharing music-making on the stage.

But at the same time, piano recitals can be extremely powerful. It's just you, the instrument and the world of the composer. You serve as a sort of channel between that world and that of the audience sitting there, and it can be incredibly enriching.

Interview: Brendain O'Shea
Editor: Elaine Yeung / Rick Fulker

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