[Scene Magazine] A Beautiful Wolf in Virtuoso Clothing
With this weekend's Santa Barbara Symphony program the soloist spotlight goes to acclaimed French pianist Helene Grimaud on a Brahms-ian Theme
By Josef Woodard, News-Press Correspondent
Three years ago, Santa Barbara's rich link to the international, classical-music world grew a bit richer with the local debut of the much-acclaimed, French pianist, Hélène Grimaud, highly regarded for her magic admix of technical virtuosity and interpretive sublimity, plus a risk-taking tendency. The occasion was a recital at the Lobero Theatre, part of the CAMA roster of top pianists in recital in that intimate space, a memorable, musical evening, including Mozart, BartÛk, and Alban Berg on the program; all played with due mastery.
This weekend, Ms. Grimaud returns to Santa Barbara for the second time, and now in the concerto, soloist garb she has so commandeered over many years, with the Santa Barbara Symphony at The Granada on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. She will be performing Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, on a romantic-flavored, concert program — also with Tchaikovsky, Elgar and a touch of Ravel on the slate — subtitled "Salute to Love," just in time for the post-Valentine's Day ambience. — the Valentine's Day extended weekend.
Ms. Grimaud has been one of the premiere piano soloists on the global scene for several years, on the concert stage and with a growing discography, including the recently Grammy-nominated album on Deutsche Grammophon, "Duos" with cellist Sol Gabetta. Apart from her deep involvement in classic music, Ms. Grimaud has also been an outspoken advocate of wolves, and played an integral role in founding the Wolf Conservation Center.
An articulate and affable interviewee, she recently spoke on the phone from her dressing room at the San Francisco Symphony, where she was set to play Brahms No. 1, one of her specialties. One of many that is.
News-Press: You have recorded both Brahms Concertos, and are performing both many times this season. Does it help you as an interpreter to be able to have concentrated doses of Brahms, or another composer in a space of time, to help get your mind in that particular musical space?
Hélène Grimaud: Well, but it doesn't really work that way, because even though that's what I'm performing a lot, I'm also preparing simultaneously a lot of repertoire and different things. So I'm not really in the Brahms tunnel that one might imagine by looking at the programming of the season, which is fine. There is no problem with that.
In a way, it just goes with the territory. Whether you're playing a season where you're doing a recital program, chamber music projects, and jumping between four or five concerti during that season, in the end, it's not that dissimilar to what happens when you play a season which is more concentrated on the public side, with a couple of pieces or a couple of programs. But then usually, while you're playing those pieces, you are working on other things coming up.
Your attention is still equally divided between that and the other things, which may not be programmed yet, but which you are currently working on.
NP: Of course: this is, by nature, a very multi-tasking life that you have signed on for.
HG: Yes, it does come with the territory. And, in fact, it is better that way because I think you need that stimulation of different repertoires and different influences, different ways of taking the sound of the piano, different techniques, different styles. I think that's very important to keep you engaged and stimulated. That's actually really a blessing, and you're doing yourself, and the composer that you're working on, a favor by working on other things simultaneously.
NP: On a related note, do you like the necessary juggling of context, moving from the concerto, recital and chamber music worlds?
HG: Yes, I do, very much so. The interesting thing is that recitals are very different. It's really like nothing else when you are playing alone. It's like a religious experience. Nothing compares to a solo recital.
But, for example, chamber music or playing with an orchestra, in the best of cases, you are playing a concerto-like chamber music on the large scale. That should be the ideal thing that can happen. If you're so connected with the partners that you're working with, not doing just what you planned on doing all along, but actually reacting to everything that goes on, on that stage, in that moment, with every inflection of every soloist in the orchestra that you interact with on a direct basis from the point of view of the thematic material — that is going to be making you play differently.
Of course, you stay within parameters of the conception of what you want to be doing, but at the same time, you have to have that flexibility to react to what happens. That's when it becomes really interesting.
NP: In the very early stages of your musical life, did you have a vision of what your preferred direction would be? Did you always imagine that you would be having the kind of life you are having now?
HG: Ha. That's a good question. I knew from the very first time I encountered the piano that it was going to be part of my life forever. I had no idea, of course, that it would be in this incarnation. I don't even think it's something that you can choose, until you are already there. You don't know what it's like. You can't think you'd like to be a concert pianist. In my case, it sort of just happened.
Even if you decided that's what you wanted to do, you would not know what that meant until you're already in the process of doing it. At that time, I wasn't really concerned if it was going to be in a public or a private way, but I knew that music was always going to be part of my life. Of course, I feel incredibly privileged. There is no greater luxury than being able to live from doing what you love, and there is something so incredibly enriching about traveling and being in touch with different people from different backgrounds and sharing the music together. It's really quite magical.
It's something that makes you want to always give the very best of what you have to give, all the time.
NP: It doesn't come from a vacuum. There is a strong talent issue involved.
HG: Well, yes. But at the same time, I think it also has to do with nervous make-up, because I have encountered wonderfully talented people who somehow didn't have the nerves or the right mental makeup to be out there. That seems to be totally independent that they were wonderfully talented and great musicians. Sometimes, it has to do with the nature of the personality, and of the ego involved. Of course, you can't walk out onstage without ego being quite large. That doesn't have to be a bad thing, to make you obnoxious as a human being, but it is something you need. Otherwise, you would get out there and crumble immediately.
So there are people who thrive on this, being onstage and under adrenaline most of the time. There is also some aspect that is needed that is extraneous to the music itself.
NP: You have been compared to Glenn Gould at times. He is an extreme case, but he was seeking a different kind of purity, maybe combined with a feeling of — maybe not stage fright, but some performance-related malady that only he laid claim.
HG: Yeah, it was probably not stage fright, but I would say something to do with his feeling of discomfort and feeling that he was compromising his ideal version of things. It is true: it's an irreconcilable phenomenon and a dilemma. It is especially true with pianists, the fact that you're faced with a different instrument every time, and different acoustics, and different conditions. All of this will, of course, affect this "ideal" version of the sound image, which you carry in your mind.
At the same time, it is the only way that it finds an incarnation through the urgency of the concert and the emotional event that the concert can be — not every time, but it can be. If it happens, it's pretty much irreplaceable. That said, it is always a trade-off, too. I think that is probably what Gould could not really put up with so easily and probably what pushed him to look for other ways to make music and create his art in a way more satisfactory to him.
In the end, it's a very personal thing. As much as one can sometimes get frustrated by the circumstances, I can't really imagine retiring from the concert stage. I would miss that sharing in the moment — that shared freedom with the musicians onstage and with the public, if you're playing a solo recital. It's something necessary to me, anyway.
NP: Not to belabor this point, but it is such a part of ancient ritual, the public performance. Recording is still really in its infancy. Are you a concert performer at heart?
HG: I like to think so, anyway. Certainly in the case of Glenn Gould, obviously, he felt he wasn't able to deliver exactly what he was hoping for and reaching for when he was out there onstage. I'm not sure he was right, because the recordings we do have of his live performances may not have been exactly what he wanted, but it's certainly sufficient to be the sort of thing that was missed by many when he decided to stop (performing live).
It's all very subjective. It's about the individual perception at the end.
NP: Speaking of recordings, you have another Grammy nomination for your latest recording, "Duo," with cellist Sol Gabetta. Was there something special and unique about that particular recording project?
HG: Yes. What made me particularly happy about the fact it was nominated was that it was a very spontaneous project. It's always nice to see that something that wasn't planned and actually shouldn't even have happened, looking at everything going on in terms of two artists from two different labels with no long-term project.
It arose out of something that was not a chance encounter, but at least a very spontaneous encounter, because we happened to be physically in the same festival, even though we weren't scheduled to play together. We had this free day and decided to get together and read through some music. It was the chemistry that made us want to pursue the idea of performing together at some point, although it was nowhere on our respective radars up until that moment.
There was something so beautifully natural and spontaneous about that whole project, which was solely based on the pleasure of sharing in the music. So, it was particularly sweet that it resonated with people and made it on that list.
NP: So there is some margin for spontaneity in your busy and very planned-out life?
HG: Well, the duo was proof of it. It nearly didn't happen. It was about to collapse many times. With perseverance, we made it work. Of course, if you want to see something happen, you will carve out the time, but it can be tricky, because of course in the way we're scheduled such a long time in advance, there are people depending on you.
It's hard to move things around, even if you wanted to, on a personal level, because you want to accommodate something else which is dear to your heart artistically, you still have commitments that have to be honored. It can be difficult.
NP: Beyond the very consuming, musical part of your life, I know that your passion for preserving and understanding the lives of wolves is a continuing issue for you. How is the Wolf Conservation Center going at this point?
HG: It's going very well. I have to say, this is the best phase of the Wolf Center. I'm so thankful for the team of volunteers, the staff, the board. We really have people there who can take the organization into the future, while staying true to the original mission. It's a great source of satisfaction and pride for me to see how beautifully the Center has evolved, how many people and how many children's lives are touched every year through our programs, and what a difference these wolves are making in building a bridge for their wild counterparts. This is very significant.
Of course, there is the work that we do breeding some of the most endangered species of wolves, such as the Red Wolf and the Mexican Wolf and the rarest of species, the Gray Wolf. It's of course, a very exciting part of the mission to be able to help bring wolves back to their original range.
NP: Is there any crossover we can make between your musical life and the wolf conservation work? Do you see them as distinct parts of your being, or otherwise?
HG: No, they're definitely not separate. I've often said that, for me, especially if you look at the German Romantic movement, one of the main precepts was that nature is the ultimate muse, the ultimate inspiration one can find in reconnecting with nature. In that sense, these activities are nowhere near as incompatible as they might otherwise seem on paper.
I think they very much go hand-in-hand, nature and the arts. There is a very clear connection, always has been and always will be, I presume. And, as an artist, you can't function in a vacuum anyway. Any experience is an artistic enrichment to open your soul and mind. Anything that makes you feel things more intensely, and makes you come out of yourself and connect in other ways, is something that your art will benefit from, ultimately.
NP: On the whole, do you feel that this is a good period in your ongoing musical adventure?
HG: Yes, and it's a good question, because of course, there is no such thing as a perfectly smooth, even progression. It's the very nature of an artistic endeavor; you have ups and downs.
It's a very good phase, and I'm very thankful. There are lots of things happening with me in the relationship with my instrument. I keep discovering ways of growth, which you can't take for granted. It's not always naturally there. Sometimes, you have to help it. You have to stay open to other things, new approaches, and meeting people halfway on projects, which helps you develop, too. If you're too set in your ways, it might be a comfortable place to be, but it's artistically dangerous.
It is a good time.
NP: You never really arrive as an artist if you're serious about it, right?
HG: No, that's true. I think that's what keeps us at it, because you always discover new things with every rehearsal, every practice session, every concert. You always discover new things in these pieces and new layers of depth. It's really quite miraculous.