Classical Music

Hélène Grimaud on Brahms, Synesthesia and a Passion for Wolves

Pianist Hélène Grimaud has just finished a mentally and physically demanding rehearsal of the first two movements of Brahms' Second Piano Concerto. Wearing unremarkable dark street clothes and no makeup, she still somehow pulls off that chic, effortless beauty that only French women can. She settles on the couch in her dressing room backstage at the Meyerson Symphony Center and greets me with such genuine warmth, I instantly feel like her best friend.

"You know, you could've chosen something else to record and perform -- Mozart maybe? Or Debussy? Why this massive, physically and emotionally demanding Germanic repertoire?" I ask her.

She laughs and then explains: "I fell in love with this music as a child and it was a universe that resonated with me so strongly. I'm not sure I can justify it in any cultural way, being that I come from the south of France originally. It could have something to do with my parents' library. They had so many books and as a kid, actually before I started playing piano, my first friends were books. I started reading the German Romantics pretty early on. "

The Brahms concerto Grimaud is performing with Jaap van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra this weekend is a huge piece of music in every sense. It has four movements rather than the standard three of a typical classical concerto, takes more than 50 minutes to perform and requires a big sound, emotional depth and great virtuosity.

"But it's music that I can't really live without." She goes on: "Precisely because it is so massive and has such an enormous range and spectrum of human emotions, I just keep finding new things with every concert, every rehearsal, every partnership."

"It's true that the scope can be quite daunting in the beginning before you really get to own the piece and reach this level of osmosis," she says. "But this osmosis comes through much work and, of course, if you love the material, then it comes sort of naturally anyway because you must play it. It's a necessity. There's a sense of inevitability to the whole process. It's not something that is interchangeable, that you could just as well replace with something else. No, you do it because you cannot conceive of your existence without these pieces."

She tells me about her favorite parts of the piece -- she loves the transition from the development section into the recapitulation in the first movement ("It is absolutely sublime") and she explains what it's like to play Brahms' rich harmonies with an orchestra:

"I love the moments of dialogue with the orchestra where the colors sort of merge and then you become one of the orchestra instruments and you can sort of melt yourself into the orchestra sound. I love that, that's a very beautiful feeling when it happens and Brahms does a lot of that. It's exhilarating. It lends you wings," she says, half-whispering, with such sincerity I immediately start questioning my life choices and vow never to be sarcastic or cynical again.

I have to go home and start practicing the piano. Now. How can I live life for one more second without the kind of beauty this woman seems to experience daily?

Out of my head and back in the dressing room, Grimaud is telling me what it is a like to be a synesthete, someone who experiences involuntarily sensation in one sense (i.e. seeing a color) when another sense is stimulated (i.e. hearing music).

Grimaud first experienced color-sound synesthesia when she was 11. She was practicing a Bach Prelude in F# Major when she started to see what she describes as a "stain of undefined contours -- red, bright, orange."

"I was quite charmed," she says. "You know how it is -- as a kid you don't really ask yourself many questions about the why and the how."

For Grimaud, the connection between sound and color is connected to tonality. "It seems for me," she explains, "that each tonality has a color that represents it, and so the main color dominating the piece is going to be the color of the tonality in which the piece is written and, of course, with every modulation it will change. What I find interesting is that it brings us back to this idea from the Baroque times about how every tonality has its own emotional identity in a way, that they are not even-tempered even if they are equivalent. I've described it as something like the byproduct of an altered sense of perception. I think it takes place if you're exposed to something as powerful as music."

Grimaud was accepted into the Paris Conservertoire when she was 13. Despite her obvious talent for music, her parents were skeptical.

"My parents insisted that I get a degree in something because they didn't really believe in a musical career," Grimaud explains. "They thought it was a sweet idea, but they viewed it as sort of a bohemian endeavor and didn't take it entirely seriously. My mother was a school teacher and my father a professor so they were very strict about academic studies."

Grimaud studied animal behavior to appease her parents. Despite ultimately making a very successful career for herself in music, she continues to work closely with animals, wolves in particular. She has founded a conservation center for wolves in New York and is passionate about their reintroduction into natural habitats as well as educating young people about wildlife conservation and wolves.

Why wolves?

"Oh, that is a long, long story," she says mysteriously. "It has to do with an encounter I had with a high-content wolf hybrid. It took place in Tallahassee, Florida. She [the wolf] was so different from any domestic canine I knew and that encounter was one of those before-and-after moments in my life. I knew that it was going to lead to something bigger. And that's really what motivated me to start the conservation center."

So, not only does Grimaud hear color and play Brahms like a piano-ninja, she also has life-altering, enigmatic encounters with wolves in Florida.

How boring is your life sounding right now?

You can hear Grimaud perform tonight, Friday and Saturday with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Buy tickets here.

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Katie Womack
Contact: Katie Womack