In Perfect Harmony
Helene Grimaud: pianist and wolves
Helene Grimaud is an internationally acclaimed concert pianist. Reviews of her performances have ranged from “exquisite” and “virtuoso” to “highly personal” and “favorite among many conductors.” A native of France, she travels the world giving some 100 concerts a year. She is founder and a director of the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, dedicated to educating the public about wolves and the need to protect them. She lives in North Salem. She spoke with Bedford Magazine about her career, her love of wolves, and her June 2 concert at John Jay High School.
I have had two decisive moments in my life. As a child, I was relentlessly agitated, bored in school, and hated sports and ballet. My father, as a last resort to focus my attention, took me at age eight to a children’s music-appreciation class. I instantly knew that I had found my passion. At 16 I won the piano competition at the Paris Conservatory. My parents, both academics, weren’t convinced that music would provide me with a livelihood, and they insisted I study something else as well. I chose ethology and became deeply interested in animals, their behavior, and their habitat. Years later in northern Florida I was introduced to a wolf—actually a high-content hybrid—kept as a pet by a lonely Vietnam veteran. I was mesmerized by this animal and my life again took a new course.
I began learning all I could about wolves, their ecological role, how endangered they are, and the obstacles to their recovery. I realized that their greatest enemy is a lack of human tolerance due to ignorance. Wolves are keystone to larger conservation efforts, because by saving the wolf, we are saving every animal that lives belowit in the food chain. So I decided in 1996 to create an education center to promote wolf conservation and to teach the ecological benefits of wolves. I figured people would be touched by actually meeting such an animal. At first, the Center was a shoe-string affair with three wolves, while I and a partner did most of the work. In 1999 we incorporated as a not-for-profit environmental education organization and shortly became part of the national Species Survival Plan. Today we have some 25 wolves, all donated from USDA-approved nature centers or zoos, a wonderful board of directors, a professional staff, and on-site and off-site educational programs. None of this would have been possible without the outstanding volunteers.
How did you pick South Salem as the site for the Wolf Conservation Center?
In a very mundane way. I drew a circle around New York to be within an hour-and-a-half from the city and airports, indispensable for my career. Then I began looking for real estate. South Salem not only had the right property with the possibility to expand, but the Lewisboro town government proved enormously supportive of the project.
Are you happy living in this part of I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. It is the right place for me. After off-and-on 20-odd years in this country, I returned to Europe in 2005. I stayed for seven years but I always knew I would be back. Recently when I landed back here after a grueling six-week Asian concert tour, I felt as if I had died and gone to heaven. I feel re-energized. I love the land, the fall colors, the four seasons, the friends I have made here.
Yet, you spend so much of your time on the road. Do you enjoy performing live? Definitely.I love working in a studio and made my first recording at 15. Now I make at least one major recording a year. But I could never imagine not being on a stage. I need that immediate feedback. I feel I am the connecting channel between the collective consciousness of the audience and the universe of the composer. In a way, it is a shared freedom.Do you have a daily routine for practicing and what do you do to relax?
No. I know some writers adhere to a strict routine of working but I don’t. I practice when the spirit moves me—morning, afternoon, or evening. But I do it every day. And when I am traveling, I practice in my mind. Very occasionally, I give myself a day off. I relax by being outdoors when I can, reading a good book, and generally being stimulated by something besides music that interests me, such as being around animals and still being involved in all aspects of the Center.At this stage in your career, do you still have musical mountains to climb? There are always challenges ahead, but they need to be long-range. My concert schedule is set far in advance. For example, right now I know what and when I will be performing through 2016, but I set the program of the compositions I will be playing. The last mountain was the Brahms 1st and 2nd piano concertos I was performing with the Vienna Philharmonic on tour at the beginning of the season. Beyond that, it will be the Rachmaninoff 3rd concerto in 2015. I keep living with the pieces I perform, I never close a chapter.
There will be a performance especially dear to me, the Robert C. Macdonald Memorial Concert on June 2 at the John Jay School, where I will be participating in the Beethoven Choral Fantasy with the Westchester Oratory Society. Bob was a dear friend and as a volunteer did all the accounting at the Wolf center. It will be a wonderful tribute.
What motivates you to be so generous for causes you believe in?
It is a way I can give back. When one is as blessed as I am, when I can make a living from my passion, I feel I should share my good fortune. I love all these volunteer projects we have in this country, the way they make people become inter-connected, not to mention the practical results. I want to support them—whether they are international such as the World Wildlife Fund, Worldwide Fund for Nature, or Amnesty International, or local like the North Salem Open Land Foundation or our own Wolf Conservation Center.
What is your advice for aspiring young musicians?
Every child should learn to play a musical instrument. It should be part of the school curriculum, not just the routine “circus hour” with spitball fights, but serious training such as with sports. Research has shown that learning to play music helps the neural pathways to develop. However, to the young people who want to make music a profession, I would say this—and it may seem harsh: do it only if you can’t live without it. If you can, do something else. A career in music comes with a lot of sacrifices.