Watching Helene Grimaud’s hands in flight over the piano keys is like glimpsing a meteor shower. Lightning flashes when she crosses over from delicate patterns in triple pianissimo to hailstorm-intense passages of gnarly complexity. A bold interpreter of works by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Bartok, she has recently expanded her repertoire to include what she describes as subtle, fragile, vulnerable music.
Grimaud was born in southern France in Aix-en-Provence; her father is descended from Sephardic African Jews and her mother from Corsican Jewish Berbers. A respected wildlife advocate who cofounded a wolf conservation center in Westchester County, NY, she also belongs to a special category of famous musically inclined synesthetes. Like Duke Ellington and Itzhak Perlman, Grimaud sometimes sees or “feels” colors when hearing certain tonalities. F-sharp major looks to her like reddish orange; D minor is blue, and C minor, she says, is black.
Grimaud’s concert at Hill Auditorium on March 14 will open with thirteen gorgeous miniatures from her recent album Memory. The pieces fit together uncannily well, like pebbles and shells gathered from the same remote beach and organized into a mosaic. In addition to a handful of gems by Frederic Chopin, the program includes two bagatelles by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, who describes his own music as so transparent that one can see to the bottom and feel the poetry shimmering up through it.
When played by Grimaud, Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes feel like solitary ruminations on ancestral memory reaching back thousands of years. Their mysterious harmonies are believed to have resulted from Satie’s fascination with Romanian folk music. Inspiration for the unusual title has been attributed to his interest in Gnosticism or perhaps the excavation of the Cretan Palace of Minos at Knossos. Grimaud will also play two of Satie’s “Crooked Dances” from the set he chose to call “Cold Pieces”.
Music historians tell us that Satie’s friend Claude Debussy was partly influenced by Javanese gamelan music. He was also susceptible to the rarified visions of French Symbolist poetry. In addition to the attractively eccentric waltz whose title translates as “The More Than Slow,” Grimaud’s Debussian offerings will include his best-known composition, inspired by Paul Verlaine’s poem “Clair de lune,” which describes a nocturnal landscape where masked dancers promenade in the moonlight.
The concert will culminate with Robert Schumann’s “Kreisleriana,” a pianistic tour de force written in a four-day compositional torrent. Named after E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fictional kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler, its eight manically contrasted movements alternate between ferocious intensity and romantic tenderness. Schumann’s fiancee, pianist Clara Wieck, told him the work was so strangely original that she was a bit frightened at the prospect of marrying someone capable of writing such stuff.
The University Musical Society presents Helene Grimaud at Hill Auditorium, 8 p.m. on March 14.