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Hélène Grimaud: We all do music in our own way


Hélène Grimaud, long recognized for her compelling musical personality, is a multi-dimensional artist who brings a strong sense of individuality and innovation to her performances. Grimaud's rise to fame began at an early age in studies with Pierre Barbizet in Marseilles, training at the Paris Conservatory, and her successful debuts at age eighteen in Tokyo and with the Orchestre de Paris under Daniel Barenboim, which led to international recognition and Grand Prix du disque recordings. I had the privilege of speaking with Grimaud recently in Santa Barbara, where she performed the Brahms first concerto. Her comments on the topics of teaching, interpretation, career development, and more were insightful and inspiring. "I think we all do music in our own way because that's how music lives, subjectively through the filter of every interpreter. It's individual every time, but can't just be whimsical and has to be based mostly in respect for the text," said Grimaud. 

She explained that the relationship between technique and musicianship go hand in hand when learning a piece, therefore it would be beneficial for students to build a strong foundation for their future by practicing Brahms's 51 Exercises, Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, and Chopin's Etudes, which she described as excellent bibles of the piano repertoire. She added that developing technique includes more than digital proficiency or velocity. "I am talking about technique in the larger sense of the term, which means how to make the sound, use the pedal, and what's happening dynamically and with tempo relationships. In the Cortot editions of Chopin and Liszt, he had a good method of extracting the difficulty from the musical context, and this is a helpful indicator of how to practice a particular passage and its realization. In the end, you have to put everything back into its musical context, and it will be less difficult because it will have musical meaning." 

Preparing a work for performance involves commitment, instinct, and a profound understanding of the score. Grimaud described the text as an essential starting point that holds the keys to unlocking the secrets of a piece. "If you depart from the text, it has to be done with a certain musical intelligence about the ultimate purpose of what the piece is and what it's trying to say, so that you can stay true to the original spirit. Even if you do the opposite dynamics, you can still be close to the spirit of the work's interpretation," she added. Teachers are important role models in the recognition and encouragement of a student's talents and needs, and Grimaud explained that great teachers are the ones who know what defines each student and how to bring those qualities out. "I think all the great teachers give students the tools to be independent in their music making and fully accomplished in their technical spectrum." In Chopin's unfinished teaching method, he noted that we use sounds to make music just as we use words to make language.1 This comment reveals the importance of communication through interpretation, which is a quintessential part of Grimaud's approach. "Sometimes you hear a certain type of playing and it feels like it is inhabited. It lives from the inside and is not just the plastic realization, but is really soulful. I think that's what Chopin had in mind and that's what you want with a great interpretation." She believes that interpretation should be based on intellectual honesty and emotional generosity, in relation to the piece and its style. She pointed out that, in a larger sense, a performance can also change each time, depending on the acoustics of a hall, whether dry or resonant, because the return of sound will influence how the next note is to be played. She remarked that pianists should be ready to react and adapt to different performance situations. She mentioned her work with Valery Gergiev and his comment that if you play a harmony, it should never be too secco (dry), otherwise it will sound like broken glass. "Even in repertoire that is quite vertical, or borderline aggressive, you still need to make sure that the harmony is registered, not just by the auditory system, but by your entire being, because it's the harmony that creates the emotion." 

It's important for pianists to be connected to more organic instruments that have an innate ability to sing.


 A discussion of piano playing usually involves the issue of tone production, certainly in romantic repertoire, where fingers try to create an aesthetic world of sound, but also with compositions of Prokofiev or Shostakovich that often require a brighter quality. Grimaud mentioned that fingers have to role play and be used in different musical contexts. "I think the idea of poetry in music making is a very important aspect, and it is a sign of maturity in performers when they reach a stage where they are able to maintain dramatic tension throughout a piece but still honor every detail, color, and mood change without taking away from the overall architecture of the piece." She added that the character of Schumann's music is poetic and fragile, often creating an elusive mood. "The Schumann world has so many changing atmospheres, and it is actually some of the trickiest music to play." Grimaud recalled that during her lessons with Leon Fleisher, he would often say that the piano should become an orchestra and not just sound like a piano. She described her rehearsal sessions with orchestras as a wonderful learning experience, especially when observing how conductors work, even with tutti sections. "I pay close attention to conductors because I can always find something to use, a reminder of something to do with articulation, phrasing, timing. You can always find a correspondence to your own instrument and the task of making it speak." 

Grimaud's repertoire is wide-ranging and includes Chopin's Sonata, Op. 35, concertos of Mozart, Brahms, Bartok, Rachmaninoff, and Credo, a work by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Grimaud believes that pianists should investigate works by modern or living composers, even for the sake of concept programming. She remarked that there is much repertoire to explore, so for her, the piece has to be one that she can't live without, as would be the case with a Beethoven sonata, Brahms concerto, or Schumann cycle. She said that much of what is written today is perhaps more successfully adapted to string instruments and vocalists. "If you look at the history of the piano, all of these composers were also extremely proficient performers, as well. I think the piano is probably a scary instrument for a composer to write for because you have that golden age."

Grimaud commented that pianists can easily become reclusive due to the quasi-religious discipline required of preparing a piano recital and being alone on a stage. Her recording, "Duo," with cellist Sol Gabetta, received the 2013 Echo Award for chamber music recording of the year, and she encouraged collaboration with musicians such as instrumentalists and vocalists. "It's absolutely essential if you want to be a well-rounded musician. I think it's important for pianists to be connected to more organic instruments that have an innate ability to sing. Never forget that you are faced with a percussion instrument, and you have to make it sing, allow it to breathe, and keep flexibility and suppleness in the phrasing. It's probably the main challenge of the instrument in collaboration with chamber music partners." 

Away from the concert stage and recording studio, Grimaud is an author, having written three books, including Retour à Salem in 2013. She is also founder of the Wolf Conservation Center in Westchester County, New York—for more information visit Grimaud remarked that this project has taken time from her career in terms of working on new repertoire, but it remains a source of enrichment in multiple ways. "It's an idea that is similar to one of the basic precepts of the German romantic movement, which is about how nature is the ultimate muse, and we only rediscover what was already there. And so, anything that deals with the more intuitive side of a human being is something which, as an artist, is bound to keep you healthy and honest. There is a primal quality about music, which is probably one of the most far-reaching art forms in terms of emotional spectrum." 

 For many, the end goal of years of study and sacrifice is a career, but there are challenges in dealing with this lifestyle. Grimaud advised that taking on a career is a big responsibility, and that students should probably pursue the idea if they feel that life would not be complete without the element of public performance. "If your talent is aligned with a passion and inner fire, then you should go for it and are probably meant for a career. You have to be incredibly driven, a bit of a one-track mind, but you don't want to be so driven that you miss out on chances to enrich yourself." Grimaud believes that feeding one's artistic soul and mind involves reading poetry, literature, going to museums, and embracing what life has to o er. "My advice is that you have to work on being a well-rounded human being, not only in the arts, but also in developing empathy and compassion and working to make every cell in your being more sensitive. But I would say that if you can live without a career, you should do something else." Grimaud commented that she likes the aspect of adventure when making music, and is motivated by a sense of imagination and exploration, where one is never satisfied and always looking for more. "Kurt Sanderling was always saying that even when you think it's enough, it's never enough, and that's something which I continue to remind myself of. It's easy to be satisfied with a sense of comfort and command that you might have with certain pieces, and think that's the end. But, that's not where art takes place. For that, you really have to be at the edge and push yourself." Grimaud points to Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim, Nelson Freire, Gidon Kremer, Kurt Sanderling, and Pierre Barbizet, among others, who have influenced her artistic development. "Somehow, you tend to meet the person you need to be meeting at that particular point in your evolution, to access the next threshold. Life has a wonderful way of working that out. For the last twenty seven years, what I found fascinating is what you can keep learning from every rehearsal and concert, and with every partnership you continue to grow and discover new things in pieces you've worked on for decades.  ere is no reason for that road to end, as long as you keep an open mind and are willing to take risks and leave your comfort zone."

1 Eigeldinger, J.J. (1987). Chopin: Pianist and teacher: As seen by his pupils. Translated by Shohet, N., Osostowicz, K., & Howat, R. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 42, p. 90. 

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