The pianist and the wolf

How a late-night encounter changed the life of one of the stars of this year's Proms
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The Independent Culture

Hélène Grimaud, who plays Bartók's Third Piano Concerto at the Proms on Sunday and a solo chamber Prom the day after, is a congenital misfit who has tamed her inner demons.

Hélène Grimaud, who plays Bartók's Third Piano Concerto at the Proms on Sunday and a solo chamber Prom the day after, is a congenital misfit who has tamed her inner demons.

At school in Aix-en-Provence, Grimaud was diagnosed as hopelessly hyperactive: only when she was introduced to the piano did she find a focus for her energy, graduating with phenomenal speed to the Conservatoire in Paris, where she found herself once more a rebel. Grimaud defied her tutors and took off to compete in the Tchaikovsky competition, in Moscow, where she made the final dozen.

The pianist blames her inability to feel French on her mixed origins - a blend of Italian, Corsican, German, and Moroccan - and on traumas in her family's past about which she refuses to elaborate. Musically, she feels at home with the German repertoire; geographically, she's settled for upstate New York.

Her main therapy began when she was walking a friend's dog in Florida in the middle of the night and encountered a she-wolf. "I saw the silhouettes of a man and an animal which was seemingly canine, but not a dog. It was what she exuded that fascinated me; I wasn't afraid, my head wasn't full of Little Red Riding Hood images. It was this sense of mystery, of a free spirit trapped in the net of human dominion." Did she identify? "Not consciously. But who knows? Maybe a kind of sympathy." Grimaud saw the wolf regularly, and started to read up on the subject, "Very much like my approach to music, what started as a passion then became a mission."

She considered setting up a wolf sanctuary, rejected that idea as merely sentimental, then hit on the project she now runs on a 16-acre estate near her home: an education centre where wolves live, and where groups of children come to study them. "People are afraid of what they don't understand, and what they fear they want to destroy. And as with classical music, the best way to induce conservation is to get to kids." Grimaud mornings and even-ings at the piano, but afternoons are devoted to the wolves. She reckons they've saved her from a misanthropic end.

Apart from her highly individual approach to the keyboard, Grimaud's other claim to fame lies in her synaesthesia - she hears in colour. "But since I had always seen numbers as each possessing their own colour, I didn't think much about the fact that different musical keys were similarly coloured."

So how does the pianist categorise the programme she will play at her solo Prom? "Beethoven's Tempest Sonata is black and blue, the Corigliano piece is mostly red, and the Bach-Busoni is a framework of blue and purple." Anyone who regards synaesthesia as an affliction should get along on Monday to her concert at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and think again.

Hélène Grimaud plays Bartók's Third Piano Concerto at the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday, and a solo recital on Monday (020-7589 8212; www.bbc.co.uk/proms)

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