Helene Grimaud’s recent Thompson Concert series performance was to include a master class for student pianists the day before the event. Unfortunately, she was in Paris that day receiving an award, and could not make the trip in time. We thought, sadly, that the event had been canceled rather than postponed. Grimaud, however, came through on the original arrangement this past Friday. For two hours she heard and commented on student performances, and then retired to the faculty club for a dinner in her honor.
The format was simple and effective. Each student played through his or her piece in its entirety and would then begin a second stop-and-go play-through while receiving commentary on specific sections. The list of performers was Michael Veloso ’98, Ifeoma Okwuje ’98, Dan Perttu ’01, Heather Williams ’98 and Ryan McNaughton ’01. Grimaud’s commentary was excellent and insightful, delivered in an encouraging and unassuming tone.
Veloso played Debussy’s Prelude from Pour le Piano quite well. “Very musical,” Grimaud praised. Okwuje played a rhapsody by Brahms, a composer whose work Grimaud knows quite well. Perttu played a Chopin Noctune, Williams chose Liszt’s Vallee D’Obermann and McNaughton finished strongly with the Allegro Assai of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 488. The students all gave strong performances, though Veloso’s and McNaughton’s were particularly impressive.
Grimaud spent between twenty and thirty minutes with each student, working through difficult sections burdened most often by the player’s physical tension, or commenting on a dynamic inflection here, a missed legato there. Every comment was, if necessary, illustrated by Grimaud, who seemed to have all five of these pieces comfortably under her fingers.
The atmosphere relaxed considerably at dinner, as Grimaud continued in warmth and encouragement. “It is never too late,” she responded to a question about whether or not the Williams music student would ever stack up at the Conservatory. She added that the level of performance here was in fact greater than at the Paris Conservatory (which she entered at twelve) and that Richter started when he was twenty years old.
Conversation soon turned to her interest in wolves, which she raises from birth at her South Salem, New York home. She also commented on a gigantic circular vending machine from which one can purchase underwear and bottled water in a Berlin subway station. The latter detail was supplied by Professor Roberts of the music department, who was responsible logistically for the afternoon and evening, and to whom we owe a great deal of gratitude.
The evening proved to be an overwhelmingly positive experience, both in terms of Grimaud’s commentary on piano technique and the interpretation of repertoire. The pure value of meeting an individual who so embodies talent, charisma and warmth can never be undervalued. Finally, if you ever find yourself in a German subway station with no underwear and a pocket full of loose change, you’ll know what to do.