NORTH SALEM, N.Y. - Since leaving her Upstate New York home for Switzerland seven years ago, pianist Hélène Grimaud has had new recordings, unexpected collaborators, repertoire nobody could have predicted - and a dashing German photographer often by her side.
Yet the news coming back from Europe was also dire. Her long professional association with revered conductor Claudio Abbado came to a crashing halt in a disagreement over cadenzas, shelving their Mozart concerto recording. A series of Job-like health problems (chicken pox, pneumonia) culminated in 2010 surgery for an abdominal tumor.
In typical form, Grimaud - now 44 and in the process of pulling up stakes from her Lucerne-area home and resettling in North Salem, near the Wolf Conservation Center she founded in 1999 - interprets her life events with the sort of penetrating gaze she promises to deliver in her Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 performances this week with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The move to Europe "was a chance to develop a different relationship to my instrument and profession," she said recently on a freezing, sunny day in North Salem, where she's renting a converted barn while she looks for a permanent place.
Among other things, she played the song cycle Dichterliebe not with a vocalist but with cellist Jan Vogler.
"But there was a dissonance . . . some things that weren't solved when I left here and went to Europe," she said cryptically. "Also, I was thinking about taking a sabbatical, but didn't have the guts to do it."
In the exact time period that she planned to take off, her abdominal tumor was discovered, luckily in stage one. Concerts were canceled in 2010, though her 2011 Deutsche Grammophon album Resonances (including finger-testing pieces such as Liszt's Sonata in B minor) stayed on schedule. Such a feat had to do with the places from which she draws her strength.
For all her delicate, fashion-model looks, Grimaud has long defied the supposed connection between hefty pianists and large sounds. When she roars at the keyboard, it starts in her brain.
"Athletes have been doing mental imaging for ages. Why should it be any different for a performer?" she said. "Hearing the piano in your head and feeling the physical sensation that goes along with the sound should be a big part of what you're doing."
Add to that, she's left-handed, which means that music usually considered mere accompaniment has a mind of its own that makes the musical foundation rumble. Pieces as well-integrated as Brahms' gain particular intensity.
Such factors dispel one possible suspicion around her ambivalence toward Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2: The piece entered her repertoire only in 2011, but not because its heroic requirements pushed her physical limits. She didn't understand why the piece was the way it was. The final movement felt superfluous. Much else was "labored."
Of course, she could just play it - and did in 2007. "I left it in peace with no plans to resuscitate. Then in 2011, a beautiful thing happened," she recalled. "It came knocking at the door from the inside. When I sat down to look at again, it was a completely different story."
But it's a story she decided not to tell in Philadelphia - yet. She wants to save the piece for music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who canceled this week due to illness. Thus, she's playing the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 with Michael Tilson Thomas.
Such reasons might be maddeningly vague to those who looked forward to hearing her in this new repertoire. But if the articulate Grimaud isn't entirely clear, it helps to know how much she distrusts everyday language. "As soon as you put emotion into words," she says, "you've already betrayed it."
Much better to communicate in music - or with creatures who don't traffick in words, such as wolves or her amiable German shepherd Chico: "It's a much truer connection."
Was Grimaud ever typical? She would say so, though few girls growing up in Aix-en-Provence entered the Paris Conservatory at age 13, and by 17, made an award-winning disc of Rachmaninoff. Amid this, she also discovered that she has synesthesia - she sees music-inspired colors when her mind is particularly still.
Crucial, career-making years were spent in Tallahassee, Fla. (she was living with a university professor there), where she became fascinated with locally domesticated wolf/dog breeds. Soon, she was on album photos with pups she was raising. Conductor David Zinman recalled that when she was visiting his home, one particular animal was anything but housebroken.
Her formation of the Wolf Conservation Center arises from a belief that the animals are an important part of the ecosystem. But clearly, she just plain loves them. Though Grimaud felt confident that she was leaving the wolves in good hands while in Europe, it's no coincidence that she is choosing to again live near them - this time with photographer Mat Hennek.
She sometimes talks about the wolves as a counterbalance to her concert career. "It's such an artificial existence, with hotels, concert halls," she said.
Such words might be particularly welcomed by her parents back in Aix, who still question the career path she has taken.
"Regularly they ask, wouldn't it be better if you were a doctor or lawyer and had a quiet life in Aix?" she said. "I always tell them I'm doing exactly what I should be doing."
Does she ever wonder if her parents are right?
"It never crosses my mind."