WILD HARMONIES: A LIFE OF MUSIC AND WOLVES.
By Helene Grimaud. Translation of Variations sauvages by Ellen Hinsey.
New York: Riverhead Books [Penguin], 2006. 245 pages
Grimaud is rather young to be writing a memoir, unless she plans
a series of them. And it is paradoxical for her to be so devoted to
wolves, as the species is hierarchical in social its organization and
she emphatically is not. But there are lone wolves on the periphery of
wolf packs, and Grimaud can certainly be regarded as a kind of lone wolf
There is a great deal of fact and myth about wolves in this book. Grimaud
lived in voluntary poverty for years while saving her musical earnings
to establish a Wolf Conservation Center, employing thirty people, in New
York State, where she lives. It has had thousands of visitors, including
Grimaud has always gone her own way. She presents herself, even as
a young child, as "uncontrollable," "unmanageble,' "unsatisfied." She
confesses to "hurting" herself physically. Without siblings, she was
friendless in school; a daydreamer, she interrupted to ask inappropriate
questions, something she felt guilty about.
She did take to the piano at a very young age, made rapid progress, and
impressed her music teachers. Following private instruction, she entered
the Conservatoire at Aix en Provence at a very young age and spent four
years there. At age eleven she played for the director of the Marseilles
Conservatoire, Pierre Barbizet, who recommended that she prepare to enter
the National Conservatoire in Paris. When she was barely thirteen she
was admitted there, and did so well in the examinations that she was
exempt from taking musical theory.
By in her second year in Paris Grimaud was already impatient with the
course of study. She wanted to play complete concerti, not etudes.
Risking expulsion, she went away without leave for a month. At Aix,
before returning, she played Chopin's Second Concerto. She was now
Back in Paris, her piano teacher not only agreed to listen to a tape
of that concert but played it for the principal producer at Denon-- who
immediately decided to record her. He wanted Liszt. She insisted on
Rachmaninoff. The CD was made in Amsterdam and Grimaud usefully describes
how she coped with pre-performance nerves, then and later. Self-critical
of the performance on that first commercial recording, Grimaud was
fortunate in that it helped start her career.
By the time she was fifteen, she fulfilled the requirements for a
premiere prix, which involved a juried competition and which admitted
her to the third level of study, by the age of fifteen. After another
two years she insisted in entering (against vehement advice) the Tchaikovsky
competition in Moscow, easily persuading her sight- reading teacher, but
not her piano teacher, to write the needed letter for her. She won no
prizes. At seventeen, Grimaud decided to leave the Conservatoire.
She had decided to continue on her own. Her resolution was confirmed
and encouraged by Leon Fleisher, two of whose master classes she attended,
the second of which she found musically invaluable: "All at once, with
just a few images, he made me understand the architecture of a piece and
its importance, the directive force of the overall line." He told her
"a pianist is an architect who uses rhythm as a basic building block"
(p. 157). He advised her to begin slowly and perform as little as
possible, but that she had what it takes to make a success of it.
"Go to it," he said.
During the summer of 1987, she took the master class of the Cuban
pianist Jorge Bolet at La Roque d'Antheron, where she had the choice
of half a dozen grand pianos. They did not have a verbal language in
common, but Bolet told an interviewer for Le Monde that Grimaud had a
talent of "extraordinary quality and sensibility of temperament" (p.
166). Within hours Grimaud had an agent and a visit from the director
of the festival. She also had been invited to play at the festival
of Aix en Provence, the broadcast of which led Pierre Vozlinsky, the
artistic director of the Orchestre de Paris, to invite Grimaud for an
audition with Daniel Barenboim. Her Rachmaninoff 2nd Piano Concerto was
released by Denon and won a Grand Prix du Disque. Denon asked her to
make a second recording. Grimaud admits she was lucky.
She certainly seemed about to throw her luck away, though. Instead of
working with Barenboim on a concert scheduled the day after a performance
by Martha Argerich and Gidon Kremer (who were later to become friends)
she insisted in hearing their performance instead of preparing for her
own. Both Barenboim and her agent found her stubborn: she refused to
play Saint-Saens' second concerto which failed to please her; she refused
to meet with a famous conductor whose conducting style she did not like.
(A conductor she really did like working with later was Kurt Sanderling,
with whom she recorded Brahms.) Nevertheless she began to tour in Germany,
Switzerland, London, Japan and the United States. At the festival of
Lockenhaus she began working with Argerich and Kremer and actually acting
on their advice. From Kremer she learned to analyze scores better. She
also learned to face her own errors and failures and the admission helped
her to make progress. She gave up excessively fast tempos and abandoned
the goal of perfection at any price.
After a period of illness and depression, Grimaud was invited to play
in Cleveland. There she decided she wanted to return to the United
States and not to return to France, evidently to shed a lot of
baggage. "In the United States I was no longer out of step. No one
found me strange" (p 195). She found energy and absence of
snobbery; she got along better with people. She taught herself English
in six months by listening to it in films and broadcasts. Her American
tour ended in Florida, where she met a bassoon player named Jeff, with
whom she established a relationship, and also a strange man with a pet
wolf. That encounter changed her life. From a connection with this
wolf she developed her interest in wolves in general.
I read this book, after hearing an interview with Grimaud on National
Public Radio, out of curiosity and because I like some recordings of
hers, in particular, the album called Credo (the featured work by Arvo
Part); this includes her extremely fine performances of Beethoven's
Choral Fantasy and Tempest Sonata. I also like her recording of the
Ravel Concerto in G with Gershwin's concerto in F. The book is a
strange and no doubt self-indulgent one but I found it fascinating.
Copyright 2007 by R. James Tobin
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