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Returning to Cleveland with “The Emperor”

Helene Grimaud with Beethoven score

Hélène Grimaud returns to the States this week to perform Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall on 19, 20 and 21 September for their opening weekend of the season with conductor Fabio Luisi. For Grimaud, these concerts represent a return to a seminal moment in her career. She made her orchestral debut in the United States with The Cleveland Orchestra, playing Schumann at Blossom in 1990 under the baton of Jahja Ling.

“It has a lot of significance for me,” Grimaud says. “I was pretty much in awe of everything that first time. Number one on the list was – I donʼt even want to say playing with The Cleveland Orchestra, thatʼs such an understatement. I remember thinking, this is how an orchestra can be. It was so magnificent!”

The experience shaped Grimaudʼs life and career in more ways than one.

“Everyone was so nice to me, friendly and welcoming, not just professionally but from the human point of view,” she recalls. “It was one of the main reasons I decided a couple years later to make my life in the United States. I was just really charmed by the entire thing.”

Grimaud first took on Beethovenʼs Piano Concerto No. 5 about 10 years ago, and enjoyed great success with it. She recorded it for Deutsche Grammophon with the Staatskapelle Dresden in 2007 and toured the piece extensively, including a European tour with the Dresden ensemble under the direction of then-music director Fabio Luisi. Given the strong impression she made with a 1999 recording of Beethovenʼs Piano Concerto No. 4, it should have been a natural progression. But Grimaud admits that she came to No. 5 late, and reluctantly.

“I couldnʼt quite get past the martial quality of the music,” she says. “I may even have been tainted by the unoriginal terminology of ʻEmperor.ʼ”

Once Grimaud finally put aside her preconceptions and engaged with the piece, she was pleasantly surprised.

“In fact, it has very little to do with martial music,” she says. “What I find so wonderful is its ability to communicate one of Beethovenʼs strongest beliefs, the ability of the human spirit to transcend its condition. That is very powerful and pretty much irresistible in No. 5. It carved out a special place in my heart, and is now one of my closest friends. I’m always happy to play it.”

Grimaud has been away from the piece for a while, most recently resurrecting it for two performances with the Czech Philharmonic in the UK earlier this year. Otherwise, she has been playing mostly Brahms and Schumann. But revisiting an old friend always brings new discoveries.

“Thatʼs what keeps it interesting,” she says. “Even if you are not actively engaged with a piece of music, it continues to work within you. So when you go back to it, you find changes, new angles, new life in the interpretation.”

And in this case, Luisi is part of the process.

“There is a beautiful elegance in the way Fabio conducts, the way he phrases the material and draws out the beauty of the sound, that helps me move away from my more combative nature,” Grimaud says. “I love the dynamic contrasts of No. 5, but Fabio helps me focus more on the regal, noble aspects of the piece rather than its fighting spirit. Itʼs very much an enrichment.”

In the second half of the opening concert, Luisi will have an opportunity to apply his velvet touch to Mahlerʼs Symphony No. 4, a comparatively light, accessible work by the composer with lovely melodies and few dark moments. The entire fourth movement is a childʼs vision of heaven, as described in a five-stanza poem that will be sung by American soprano Maureen McKay. This will be the Cleveland Orchestra debut for McKay, who is in Japan this month, working with Luisi on a production of Verdiʼs Falstaff at the Saito Kinen Festival.

Meanwhile, Grimaud sounds as if she were the one making her Cleveland Orchestra debut.

“It’s not just one of the top orchestras in the country, but for me it’s one of the top worldwide,” she says. “It’s a privilege to be coming back. I am extremely looking forward to that week in September.”

What does she hope Cleveland audiences will get from her performances?

“I hope that people are reinvigorated by the music,” she says. “There’s something in it that reaches so deep in the human spirit and reveals its resiliency, its ability to reinvent itself and come out better and grander than before. I really do hope that is communicated, and people feel it in a very primal way, and come out of the performance with that renewed sense of energy.”

» Concert preview on the Cleveland Orchestra’s website

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