Dancing with wolves
Does knowing about a musician's hobbies help or hinder appreciation of their performances, asks Nick Shave
If writing about music, in the oft-quoted words of Elvis Costello, is like dancing about architecture, then it follows that writing about musicians’ pastimes is akin to blogging about how builders take their tea. As Costello would say: ‘It’s a really stupid thing to want to do’.
Nobody passing Norman Foster’s Imperial College building on route to the Royal Albert Hall would ponder whether PG tips or Typhoo was to thank for its perfectly aligned steps so why do we care about the day-to-day habits and interests of our performers when encountering their construction work on stage?
One answer lies with natural curiosity. We have a nose for the eccentricities that appear to come with brilliance, like those of the synaesthete, apparently misanthropic, pale-skinned, French pianist Hélène Grimaud, for example.
Grimaud considers wolves to be among her closest friends and, as my programme notes informed me on Tuesday, has founded the Wolf Conservation Centre in upper New York State. Of course, Grimaud’s preference for hanging out in packs is a tame quirk compared to those of her piano-playing predecessors, such as the hypochondriac Glenn Gould, who would carry his own chair with him wherever he played, or Shura Cherkassky who could not feel comfortable unless he put his right foot first onto the stage. Or John Ogdon.
As Grimaud’s PRs might tell you, images of the photogenic Grimaud with wolves capture our sense of imagination in a way that photographs of a builder with lapsang souchong would not. But does knowing about Grimaud's private passions add anything to our appreciation of what and how she plays – or does it perhaps detract from it?
Watching Grimaud’s performance of the G major Ravel Concerto with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra this week I couldn’t decide: perhaps if she had brought her wolves on stage, choreographing them Caesar-Palace style while the water danced in tempo in the Royal Albert’s pond… Now that wouldn’t be such a stupid thing to want to write about, would it?
Prom 52: R Strauss, arr. Artur Rodzinski:
Der Rosenkavalier – suite; Ravel: Piano Concerto in G; Scriabin: Symphony No. 3 in C major, 'The Divine Poem'
Hélène Grimaud (piano); Sydney Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
Nick Shave is a freelance music writer, critic, and contributing editor to BBC Music Magazine. He has spent many happy summers reviewing the Proms, but is still prone to a loss of bearings when choosing the quickest way round the Royal Albert Hall.