10.01.134:45 AM ET

Arpeggios With Wolves

Hélène Grimaud is one of classical music’s most talented—and controversial—piano prodigies. She's also a wolf whisperer who sees colors when she plays a Brahms concerto or when animals howl. Lizzie Crocker talks to Grimaud about her newest album, synesthesia, and saving America's wolves.

“Lots of people are coming to see you tonight,” Hélène Grimaud whispers to Zephyr, an angsty 2-year-old Canadian wolf whimpering and pacing behind a steel fence. “Are you ready?” Grimaud squats down, squeezing three fingers through the wired enclosure and scratches his ear. He licks them frantically, panting in the August heat.

In a few hours, a group of students will arrive at Grimaud’s Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York, to see Zephyr and two other “ambassador” wolves, which are groomed for interaction with the public. Grimaud, who exhibits a placid calm when interacting with the wolf pack, is something of a wolf whisperer, which might seem an incongruous hobby for one of classical music’s most respected—and controversial—contemporary pianists. “I tend to respond to anything that is raw and has this vital, magnetic quality,” she tells me.

When we meet at the Wolf Conservation Center, she is dressed in loose jeans, a black T-shirt, and mud-stained hiking shoes, but is as effortlessly beautiful as when on stage. She has distinctly Gallic good looks—piercing, lupine eyes, a diminutive nose and sumptuous mouth. Grimaud isn’t like most classical pianists: her style is more untamed than refined and she often strays from the original score. She’s most comfortable when outside of her comfort zone. Whether playing a Brahms concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic or a Beethoven sonata solo, Grimaud has continuously upended conventions as a virtuoso. With the release of her latest album, The Brahms Concertos, she is the first female pianist in the 21st Century to record both of Brahms’s concertos, arguably his most ambitious works. His romantic D-minor concerto—completed when he was just 24—established his reputation as a composer. The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Orrin Howard calls his second concerto “a giant piece of conception, Herculean in its pianistic demand.”

Grimaud grew up as something of an enfant terrible. Her parents, both university professors in Aix-en-Provence, tried to focus their only child’s obsessive personality and nervous energy by overwhelming her with extracurricular activities. She hated everything—until, at age 7, she discovered the piano. Her all-consuming affection for the instrument only heightened her parents’ anxieties. But their attempts to make her a more well-rounded child reinforced her “propensity for fixation and having a one-track mind,” she tells me. Her parents have “very artistic temperaments, but technically speaking they are not artists.” Grimaud is a genetic aberration.

Her teachers noticed her gift immediately, declaring her a musical prodigy. At 12, she enrolled in the Conservatoire de Paris, completing its 8-year piano curriculum in just 4 years; by 14 she was performing with an orchestra in front of large audiences; and at 16, she released her first album—a recording of Rachmaninoff’s notoriously challenging Second Piano Sonata—which won a Grand Prix du Disque, the French musical equivalent of an Olympic gold medal.

There are few classical pianists today who “feel the music” quite like Grimaud does. She relies on intuition when developing her craft, in part because she has synesthesia, a rare condition that causes her to see music as colors, whether it’s a soaring Beethoven melody or a chorus of howling wolves. She was 11, practicing a Bach prelude, when a phrase “triggered the appearance of a very vivid, bright red with hues of orange—a pulsating stain with undefined contours.” The phenomenon doesn’t have a Fantasia-like effect, characterized by explosions of color, so she is pleasantly surprised when it comes unbidden. “It doesn’t happen every time I play or listen to music,” she says, “though certain tonalities seem to trigger it more than others.” D minor is deep blue; C minor is black; F sharp and E flat are yellow. Sounds in nature—like the wind whistling through leaves or buzzing insects—can also provoke flashes of color.

Grimaud exhibits a certain calmness, a deep serenity, at the wolf conservatory that is at odds with her wildly theatrical performances. On stage, she attacks the piano. Her eyes closed and back slightly arched, she alternately caresses and stabs the keys, writhing, almost orgasmically. Her dramatics are entrancing, compounded by her breathtaking beauty. When I ask if her looks have ever been an issue in her career, she is dismissive. “It’s only a hindrance because some people assume that it’s a help.” But anyone who appreciates classical music knows it matters little that she or any other female pianist is objectively pretty. “Find me a female colleague who’s not beautiful by virtue of the fact that she loves what she’s doing and is thus radiant on the stage. It’s about the expression they convey through their music.”

Grimaud never felt at home in France (“I always thought it wasn’t where I came from”), so perhaps it’s no surprise that she rebelled against the country’s traditional classical-music-conservatory repertoire, preferring the stylistic freedom of the German Romantic movement. She was invited to Lockenhaus, the Austrian chamber festival, not long after she released her second recording in 1987 (solo pieces by Liszt, Chopin, and Schumann). It was there that she found inspiration with a female pianist-in-residence who encouraged musical risk taking.

In 1990 Grimaud headed to the U.S for a full American tour, settling in Florida. It was around this time when she met Alawa, a skittish wolf her friend kept as a pet who immediately softened in Grimaud’s presence. “I think she may have been a wolf-dog hybrid,” she tells me. “But there would be no wolf conservation center today had it not been for that first encounter.”

When she relocated to New York City, Grimaud kept a wolf pup in her East Village apartment. She was struck by the discrepancy between how people perceived wolves—as monsters born out of fairy tales—and the true nature of the animal. “I found that force quite fascinating from the very beginning.”

After researching endangered wolves, Grimaud bought six acres of land in South Salem, opening the wolf conservatory two years later. “These are Canadian wolves, ambassadors for their species and wild counterparts,” she says, gesturing towards Zephyr, whose high-pitched whine occasionally becomes guttural, provoking a howling orchestra from deep in the woods. “All of the other animals on the property—the Mexican and red wolves—are part of a captive breeding program.”

“My idea was to create something that would survive me if I were hit by a bus,” Grimaud says of the Wolf Conservation Center. Over the last 10 years, when she hasn’t been performing, she’s worked with members of the local community, building a committed team that “will be able to take the organization into the future.”

Grimaud divides her time between her home in South Salem and a pied-à-terre in Lucerne, Switzerland, a property she hopes to abandon one day. “This is really my home,” she tells me.

When she is on the road, Grimaud practices pieces in her head. She doesn’t need to be at the piano to have that “aha” moment—like a mathematician solving an equation without pen and paper. “I’ve never been one of those pianists who practices for eight hours a day, so I was lucky to learn this technique at a young age,” she says. By the time she sits at the piano bench on stage, having mastered the piece both technically and internally, she is completely uninhibited.

Grimaud draws limitless expression from the instrument, sometimes at the expense of technical accuracy. “You could practically feel ripples of dismay in Meany Theater during the Mozart Sonata in A Minor, which was loud and overpedaled,” one critic wrote of a 2012 solo performance in Seattle. “The sonority sounded forced and stylistically all wrong for Mozart, as did the odd variations in tempo from bar to bar.”

But Grimaud is poised, even when taking stylistic risks; her self-assuredness is what makes her a singular talent. And while Grimaud doesn’t expound at length on her twin passions for music and wolves, she nevertheless finds commonalities. “With a wild animal, you have to build trust on their terms. It’s another parallel to what you need when you go into a room and sit with the piano for four hours and you’re penetrating the secrets of a piece. You have to make abstraction. It’s also a great lesson for living in the moment and doing things as if there was no tomorrow.”

After we say goodbye to Zephyr, Grimaud tells me she has a long night of practicing ahead. I picture her making magic at the piano—but, as she ultimately reminds me, art is just one facet of her life. “That’s always a dilemma for an artist; as much as I believe, as Dostoevsky said, that beauty will save the world, it takes more than music to put the world in order.”