French musician and MO Fan Hélène Grimaud is renowned for her spellbinding concerts and breathtaking ability but, as she reveals to Alex Gorton, it’s her passion for wolves that also sets her apart
Photography by Mary McCartney and Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty
Hélène Grimaud is arguably one of the world’s greatest concert pianists. Born in Aix-en-Provence, she discovered the piano at the age of eight, going on to study music in Marseilles before joining the elite Paris Conservatory when she was only 13. Something of a teenage prodigy, she graduated three years later, releasing her first recording at the tender age of 16. From there, a life of rehearsals, recitals and albums quickly followed, with Grimaud earning both critical and public acclaim for her skilful and exciting interpretations of works by composers such as Bach, Brahms and Shostakovich. Based in Switzerland, but nearly always travelling, she has used the same energy and passion she devotes to music to help her other great love, the wolf, founding a conservation and education centre devoted to them in New York. Passionate, driven and supremely talented, she is a true original.
When did you first start playing the piano?
I was an energetic child, and although my parents weren’t at all musical, they were looking for an extra-curricular activity for me to try in order to channel my surplus of energy. We tried sport and dance, and lots of other things, but nothing seemed to grab me or have the desired result. And so, when I was eight, my father took me to a basic music appreciation class that was actually aimed at three and four year olds. The lady who took the group played the piano and there was a set of drums that she asked the kids to use to keep in rhythm with her. At the end of the session when my father picked me up, she told him that I had a natural ability and that he should consider having me start the piano. From there on, that was pretty much it and I was totally captivated.
What was it about the piano that captured your attention?
It’s difficult to know what it was at that age, except that I had fun and I was fascinated. I must have reacted somehow to the harmonies of the piece that she was playing, which I remember was by Schumann. When I started the piano, I fell in love with the instrument straight away. There was a short phase a couple of years later when I was interested in the violin and the cello, but it was a rather brief episode, because I was more focused on the piano.
Was it then some years later that you attended the Paris Conservatory?
Well, first I went to the local Conservatory and then, at 12, I left home and went to Paris. I had always wanted to learn more and jump to another level, so being in Paris was very exciting. At the time, there was only one superior school for music in France and that was the Paris Conservatory. I graduated at 15 and made my first recordings of Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No 2 and the complete Etudes-Tableaux Op 33 when I was 16. My career developed naturally and organically from there. All I wanted was to learn more and spend my life with music, and it just sort of happened.
You are renowned for your interpretations of works by the 19th-century romantics, such as Rachmaninoff and Brahms. Are they your favourite composers to play?
I have a special connection to composers like Brahms, Schumann and Beethoven, but I couldn’t live without Bach or Mozart, just as much as I couldn’t live without Brahms and Shostakovich, so it’s not something I really think of in those terms. But, certainly, I have a natural affinity with a certain type of repertoire, and if it has to be defined it’s the romantics, yes.
What do you love about playing live?
It’s the urgency of it. Nothing exists outside of that moment. When you’re on stage it doesn’t matter what you did in a previous concert, it doesn’t matter what’s going to happen the next day. There’s no past and no future, there’s only that moment. You risk everything and you give everything you have, so there’s this urgency and intensity. Also, there’s an interaction with the audience, this shared feeling and sense of communing with other people. Of course, it’s not there every time, but in the best concerts it is. A concert is an emotional event, and if something really special happens, time stops. It can be magical.
One can become attached to a place where beauty is present
How did you discover that you had synaesthesia, the phenomenon that can make you see colour when you hear music?
I became aware of it, without knowing what it was called, when I was 12 years old or so. I was working on some Bach and I had an experience of seeing colour in front of me. I thought it was totally natural and didn’t even wonder what it was. I just lived with it until I saw a wonderful BBC documentary and discovered that there was a name for what I had – synaesthesia.
How does it manifest itself?
It doesn’t happen every time I play, but it happens quite often. I don’t want to call it an ability, it’s more a by-product of an awkward perception or association I get which occurs when I’m exposed to an art form, especially to one as powerful as music. The sound takes on a visual identity revealed through colour, which the music somehow seems to trigger. It’s really difficult to explain.
You have lived in France, the United States and Switzerland is there a place you call home?
For me, it’s not about the place so much, it’s more about the people. For that reason, New York will always be my home, because of the years I had there and the time I spend there now. And, of course, Switzerland is one of the most magnificent spots on earth – so one can become quite attached to a place where beauty is present, because then inspiration is also there. But for me, the feeling of home is more about being with the people I love. It could be anywhere, it doesn’t really make a difference.
You have had problems with your health in recent years (in 2005, Grimaud suffered from pneumonia, which then led to chronic fatigue syndrome, and she also recently underwent treatment for stomach cancer). Has that changed your perspective on life and work?
It hasn’t changed it, but it has reinforced what was already there. I believe that there’s no point, as difficult as it is, in ruminating on things that have already taken place, or constantly projecting oneself into the future. The thing that matters most is to live each and every moment to the best of one’s ability. My illnesses have definitely reinforced that way of thinking and perhaps also given me the desire to try to have a longer perspective in certain areas.
Away from music, you are known for your passion for wolves and, in particular, your involvement in the founding of the Wolf Conservation Center in New York. How did this come about?
Like many children, I loved animals and had an interest in nature, but I had no particular interest in wolves per se. And then, when I first went to the US, I met this wolf; actually, she wasn’t even a full wolf, she was a wolf/dog hybrid, but she was different from any other animal or other domestic canine I’d ever known. Through this one encounter I became interested in wolves and their cause. They have been persecuted and exterminated in most parts of their original range and it was that knowledge that led to the founding of the Wolf Conservation Center. I realised early on that I was interested in creating a sanctuary, and it occurred to me that if I was going to help the cause of species recovery, then the best tool through which to do it is environmental education. So we created an environmental education centre, which is doing wonderfully well.
On stage you risk everything and give everything that you have
Do you have plans to open a centre in Switzerland?
I’ve thought about that a lot, because there is a need in this part of the world for something like a wolf centre. It might still happen and I am looking into the possibility at the moment, but the centre in New York is extremely important to me and, above all, it’s a question of time management. I have to think carefully about starting something else, as it will mean having less time and energy for the original project. Conservation takes so much of your time, energy and mental space, and it’s so demanding. I don’t want to neglect anything by taking on too much and stretching myself too far.
You travel a lot for your work. How many times are you away a year?
Including the time I spend in New York when I’m not working, I am away for about 90 per cent of the year, so it’s really a lot. In a way it’s too much, but for me, being in New York, even if I am working, is like being at home. Also, it’s not something that I like to complain about, as it’s such a privilege to do what I do as a musician. Having less time at home is a very small price to pay for the life I lead and, anyway, I choose to do it. It seems a pity to complain about how much one travels if one is responsible for saying yes to it.
So, despite the amount of time you spend away, do you still love to travel, or is it quite tiring?
It’s both. I still love to travel because it’s so enriching, but it’s also tiring and is simply more tiring than it used to be 10 or 15 years ago. In the last five years, I’ve travelled more than ever before and I’ve realised the toll it can take crossing time zones so often. You have to make sure that you don’t go one step too far, but travelling has always been, and will always be, a defining element of my life.
Travelling so much, you must be glad to have hotels like Mandarin Oriental in which to stay. Where in the world is your favourite?
For a long time, it was Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park – the location is fantastic. I’ve always loved the time I’ve spent in London. It is blessed with a lot of great orchestras – the LSO [London Symphony Orchestra], the LPO [London Philharmonic Orchestra] and the Philharmonia, and I’ve had some great musical experiences and partnerships there, but having Mandarin Oriental as a safe haven to return to was always special. It’s not just comfortable, it goes beyond that – it’s being able to go there, relax and find inner peace. But having been to more and more Mandarin Oriental hotels around the world, it’s getting harder to choose a favourite.
What makes Mandarin Oriental hotels so special?
First and foremost, as with everything in life, it is the people – how they take care of the guests, how they’re always anticipating your needs without being over-present. Everyone is very discreet, but also attentive and extremely genuine in the way they do things, and that really is the most special quality.
Do you have any plans to visit more Mandarin Oriental properties?
There are certainly some hotels in Asia that I have not yet been to and look forward to going to in the next couple of years, for sure. It’s a part of the world where I haven’t stayed in many Mandarin Orientals and I look forward to discovering them.