Securely regarded among the foremost musical artists in the world, French pianist Hélène Grimaud is uniquely intense.
Calling the Brahms’ concerto, which she is performing with the San Francisco Symphony this week, “dramatic, powerful with unmasked feelings, honesty and irresistible,” her words tumble into a self-interrupting cascade.
It’s hard to believe the depth of feeling she still has for Brahms’ 1858 Piano Concerto No. 1, which she has performed throughout her illustrious 30-year career.
The emotion is palpable in her voice as she describes the “noble and tender mystical second movement” of the piece, believed to be a musical memorial for Robert Schumann, who committed suicide around the time it was written.
Intensity has always been her hallmark, and Grimaud is well aware of it.
“My father came from a background of Sephardic Jews in Africa, and my mother’s ancestors were Jewish Berbers from Corsica. As a child, I was often agitated,” she once said in an interview with the New York Times.
Grimaud, 44, who recently released a recording of both Brahms’ concerti on Deutsche Grammophon, speaks about the works as a mother would of her children — unable to choose between them. She calls Piano Concerto No. 2 a mature work of “transcending resignation, acceptance how life could have been but wasn’t.”
Lionel Bringuier, not San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, is slated to conduct this week’s Davies Symphony Hall French-focused program, which also includes Ravel’s “La Valse” and Henri Dutilleux’s “Métaboles.”
Bringuier, the rising French maestro, 27, who served for six years as resident conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is the music director designate of the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich. Composer Dutilleux, who died in Paris last year, wrote “Métaboles” 50 years ago. The piece, about metamorphosis, features unusual instrumentation, including two temple blocks, snare drum, tom-toms, bass drum, small suspended cymbals, a Chinese cymbal, tam-tams, crash cymbals, triangle, cowbell, xylophone, glockenspiel, celesta, harp and strings.
In an interesting twist of events, MTT conducted Grimaud playing Brahms’ Concerto No. 1 in December concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra, when that orchestra’s music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, became ill.
IF YOU GO
San Francisco Symphony
With conductor Lionel Bringuier, pianist Hélène Grimaud
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. today and Friday, 2 p.m. Thursday
Tickets: $20 to $157