PARIS — Had Helene Grimaud lived in the 19th century, Byron or Shelley might have immortalized her in verse.

Striking and talented, she is an ideal Romantic heroine: a virtuoso pianist with piercing Pre-Raphaelite eyes who, when she’s not touring, lives secluded in the South Salem, N.Y., countryside where she runs a conservation center for wolves. She’s the dramatic type that fashion designers love to dress, and that’s exactly what Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga has been doing since he met Grimaud this year through French pop icon Françoise Hardy. Giorgio Armani also outfits the musician.

This story first appeared in the December 22, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Grimaud’s latest record, “Credo,” which will be released in the U.S. on Jan. 13, is an unusual and highly personal fusion of the classical and the contemporary, and it features Beethoven’s rarely performed “Choral Fantasy” in C minor, as well as modern maestro Avro Part’s title composition for piano, orchestra and mixed choir.

“I’ve always wanted to do an album that would explore the concept of universalism,” says Grimaud. “I knew that I wanted to do the ‘Choral Fantasy.’ But the project really came together when I asked Avro to write a piece for me. He pulled a score off of the shelf. It was a piece that mattered. It was then that I realized that I would have my universal concept album.”

Grimaud, 34, began playing at the relatively late age of nine — most important concert pianists begin at three or four — after her parents tried to find an extracurricular activity suited to their daughter’s fiercely independent and energetic spirit.

“I was a fairly turbulent kid,” says Grimaud, who was born in France but now calls America home. “I had the opposite of an attention deficit. I was overly focused. Once I concentrated on something, I couldn’t think of anything else.”

Grimaud’s musical talent manifested itself quickly, and by the age of 15, she had completed her first recording, which is almost unheard of in the annals of piano playing. Today, critics praise Grimaud as one of the most electrifying performers on the circuit, where she is known for playing with emotional intensity and idiosyncratic phrasing.

To date, she has made a dozen recordings, mostly exploring the Germanic repertoire of such composers as Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms. Grimaud says the link she feels to their music comes from her passion for that country’s Romantic literature. “German Romanticism is one of the most modern concepts that has ever existed,” she says. “As we’re surrounded by so much technology, there’s a real risk of losing your soul and identity. It’s easy to lose sight that there’s something larger than ourselves, that everything is connected.”

For Grimaud, music, “the most universal art form,” is as important to her as nature. So for the last few years, she has run the Wolf Conservation Center in northern Westchester County, N.Y., where she educates the public, especially young children, about the endangered animals and their habitat.

“It’s much more than a hobby,” says Grimaud, who has just published a book in France, “Variations Sauvages” (Robert Laffont) — set for translation into English — about her passion for music and wolves.

“We had more than 10,000 children visit and learn about biology and ecology. It’s my way of showing that individual action makes a difference.”

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