RIDGEFIELD, Conn. -- Helene Grimaud is headed outside to feed her pets.
But the phone rings.
"Thank you," she says after listening to the caller for a moment. "But I'm just too busy."
"That was Vogue, she says. "Someone named Annie Leibovitz wanted to come up to photograph me with the guys."
Again she starts to take lunch out to the "guys"; again the phone rings.
It's the producer of National Public Radio's "Performance Today." Grimaud politely explains that she's too busy to make an appearance on the program.
"Let's go," she says. "The guys must be hungry."
She pulls a large package out of the refrigerator and walks outside into a snow-covered hillside 50 miles north of New York City.
The "guys" -- actually, two males and a female -- are overjoyed to see Grimaud, especially because she's got food with her. Once she enters their three-acre enclosure, they leap to lick her face and that of her visitor, pull their lunch out of Grimaud's hands and run off to devour it. The youngest, 9-month-old Lucas, gets the largest piece. It's a deer's head, and within seconds, one can hear its skull begin to crack between Lucas' powerful jaws. Two-year-old Apache busily enjoys part of the deer's hind-quarters, leaving the 4-year-old female, Kyla, to settle for part of a front leg.
The "guys" are full-blooded timber wolves.
Helene Grimaud is not like other pia- nists -- and not just because she collects road kill and has learned how to skin and butcher it for her pets.
Thirty years ago, people probably would have said that Grimaud "plays like a man." The 28-year-old French musician often chooses muscular pieces once considered practically off-limits to women -- pieces such as Beethoven's Sonatas Nos. 30 and 31 and Brahms' Sonata No. 2, which she'll perform tonight in Shriver Hall at the Johns Hopkins University.
And she plays such pieces with a passionate lack of inhibition that would have been hard to accept before the feminist revolution of the 1960s. One music critic actually dubbed her "one pianist who has yet to meet the fortissimo she doesn't like."
"Some people may still be surprised that a woman [pianist] should have strength," says Grimaud, whose name is usually mentioned alongside that of Evgeny Kissin and Leif Ove Andsnes when other, less hostile, critics talk about the most gifted younger pianists. "But power at the piano doesn't come from the physique, but from the brain. It's not about how big you are; it's about what you are as a human being."
Hard as it may be to think of Grimaud as a man -- with her lovely face and slender figure -- that's what she wanted to be when she was a child.
"I always felt like a boy," the pianist says. "All people carry both feminine and masculine characteristics. When I was a girl, I didn't like girls' toys, what girls played with and what they talked about. I just felt different."
She is certainly unlike other French pianists. For example, few of them have ever played so much Brahms. French playing is characterized by a greater reliance upon the hands and wrists than in the German and Russian schools -- which rely more heavily upon the arms and shoulders for the production of sound -- and may not be suitable for Brahms.
"While it works for certain light things, French playing does not work for composers who need weight, as Brahms does," Grimaud says.
The deceptively frail-looking pianist uses the full force of her arms, shoulders and torso to produce an enormous, down-to-the-bottom-of-the-keys sound. And her playing is stormy, passionate and intuitive rather than cool, precise and logical in the French manner. Little wonder, then, that Grimaud regarded herself (and was regarded in turn) as an outsider at the Paris Conservatory in the early 1980s.
"They thought I was rebellious just for the sake of being rebellious," Grimaud says. "I thought their insistence on doing everything as it had always been done was an absurdity."
"Helene's a very individual player who goes her own way and does her own thing," says former Baltimore Symphony music director David Zinman, one of Grimaud's favorite collaborators.
"Very exciting is the only way I can describe her. She has a real personality -- audiences feel it the moment she walks out on stage. She'll rank among the great pianists with Annie Fischer and Martha Argerich; like them, she's a free spirit who doesn't care a whit for her career or about conventional expectations."
Perhaps it is the pianist's free spirit that makes her identify so passionately with wolves, who roamed freely over North America until they were hunted almost to extinction. She's read everything she could about them; she's established contacts with biologists who study them; and she's active in the campaign to abolish hunting them from airplanes for sport.
On the day "Performance Today" had asked her to appear, she was meeting with Defenders of Wildlife, an organization headquartered in Washington devoted to preserving animals in the wild from human predation.
"It would be a tragedy if wolves only survive into the 21st century because of zoos and the people who raise them," Grimaud says.
Friend of wolves
"It just happened and it just grew," Grimaud says, explaining her interest in wolves. She befriended the pet wolf of an acquaintance, and the animal eventually became so attached to her that it howled whenever she departed. The wolf's owner had little choice but to give her to the pianist. That wolf died peacefully in Grimaud's arms a few years ago and she acquired the rest of her wolves as pups. She has federal and state permits that allow her to keep endangered wild animals.
Although Grimaud cannot imagine living without her wolves, she warns that no one should even consider having one unless they live in circumstances like hers, which include a house located on several isolated acres in the woods and enough time to devote to them.
Time is a problem in several ways. Because she never wants to be away from the wolves for more than a few days, Grimaud often turns down engagements she would otherwise accept. Last summer, she even had to cancel an engagement with the Boston Symphony because she felt the wolves needed her.
"They're a big responsibility," she says. "They're not like dogs -- more like children -- and they need attention."
Even so, Grimaud's career is one almost any pianist would envy. She plays with the best orchestras and makes several records a year -- she will record Beethoven's Fourth Concerto next month with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic. But time spent with the wolves limits her engagements, and she never accepts more than 50 in a season.
This arrangement also limits her income, and three wolves are expensive to keep. Road kill does not supply enough food for them; she spends more than $5,000 each year on food. Because you don't pack three wolves into a station wagon to drive them to the vet, the vet has to visit you. That is another $3,000 a year. And wolves must be protected from strangers. A double-fence around three acres is not cheap (about $52,000), and neither is building proper drainage (another $6,000). Running water and electricity? Add $6,000 more.
And it doesn't stop there.
Wolves require a lot of space. After all, in their natural habitat, wolves often travel 40 miles a day. The cost of real estate around the Arctic Circle can't be much, but 50 miles north of Manhattan, it's about $250,000 an acre. Grimaud bought seven acres, and she hopes to buy another seven.
So Apache, Kyla and Lucas may live in style, but their mistress doesn't. When Grimaud was finally able to buy a practice piano three years ago, all she could afford was a 30-year-old Yamaha upright -- an instrument that any conservatory student would turn up his or her nose at.
"It's really not so bad," Grimaud says. "It has its advantages."
Grimaud thinks for a moment.
"You're always happy with the piano you find when you arrive to give a performance," she says.
Grimaud sits on a log in the cold, watching the wolves. All that's left of the deer is a crushed skull, a few tendons and bones. What the wolves want now is Grimaud -- her attention, that is. They run up to and away from her, trying to entice her to chase them.
"OK, OK," she says.
She catches Kyla, wrestles her down, and both Apache and Lucas jump into the fray. The wolves squeal in pleasure. Within minutes, Grimaud is covered, head to feet, with a mixture of snow and mud and saliva.
The guys love Grimaud as much as she loves them. She smells like a Labrador retriever after a day of duck hunting.
Grimaud wipes herself off and walks back to the log, despite the wolves' efforts to make her return to the chase. When they realize she will no longer play, they chase each other. For one moment, they travel in tandem: Kyla first, Lucas right behind with Kyla's tail in his mouth and Apache bringing up the rear with Lucas' tail in his mouth.
"The three stooges," Grimaud says.
It is now long after sunset, and the moon has started to come up. As Grimaud walks back to her modest two-bedroom house, she admits to a few of her piano's disadvantages and to wishing she had a better one.
She enters the house and nods upstairs, where her upright sits in a corner.
Wants to play Chopin
"I've been concentrating so much on Beethoven and especially Brahms these last few years, and I'd like to begin programming some new repertory, especially some Chopin," she says. "For Chopin, you need a beautiful legato, and nothing sounds legato on that instrument. It's so heavy, so ugly. Whenever I arrive at a hall to try out the piano before a performance, the first thing I do is to play Chopin. I get so excited. Then when I return home to my own piano, I just get discouraged."
Around midnight, with a full moon high in the sky, Apache, Kyla and Lucas begin to howl. It would not stretch the truth to call it a performance. The three wolves adjust their pitches so they complement each other.
"People think they howl at the moon, but that's not what they're doing," she says. "The truth is that they just love to harmonize with each other. I think they may like the music they make almost as much as I love the music of Bach."
There have been times, Grimaud says, when she thinks of abandoning concertizing to return to school to study zoology and then start a new life as a wildlife biologist.
"But I don't think I could do that," she says. "I need the wolves in my life, but I need to play for people just as much. The wolves give me a sense of the divinity that exists in every living thing, but it's only giving concerts that gives me belief in the existence of God."
When: 8 tonight
Where: Shriver Hall, Johns Hopkins University, 3400 N. Charles St.
Tickets: $23; $12 students
Pub Date: 1/30/99