What's the difference between a wolf conservationist and a Grammy-nominated concert pianist?
In the case of Helene Grimaud, there isn't one.
The French pianist has grabbed attention for her unique interpretations of music and for founding the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, N.Y., which promotes wolf education and provides a home for two species of endangered wolves.
On Friday and Sunday, she'll bring one of those passions (guess which) to Heinz Hall for performances with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and music director Manfred Honeck.
Ms. Grimaud believes there are similarities between these professional pursuits. On the one hand, she said, the German Romantics drew upon nature as the ultimate muse. In a "more pragmatic way," she said, running the center demands discipline and vigilance.
"It really requires 100 percent of your being," she said. "When you study a piece of music, it's very much the same thing."
If that weren't enough, the pianist also has synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon by which one sensory experience involuntarily triggers another.
In her case, Ms. Grimaud senses colors when she hears music and has done so since age 11.
"I was a kid, and with kids, it's pretty typical for them to take things in stride," she said. "I didn't ascribe much meaning to it."
With the PSO, Ms. Grimaud will perform Brahms' Concerto No. 1 in D minor. (She associates that key with dark blue.)
"It's a little difficult to describe, because it's a little abstract," she said, noting that the experience is "more about the idea of the color than the color itself."
The pianist said her synesthesia recalls the Baroque conception that "every tonality has an emotional identity."
Still, "it isn't bringing any added value to the experience -- it just is," she said.
In Ms. Grimaud's view, there is nothing unusual about caring for wolves, being a prodigious pianist and associating colors with music.
"For me, they're nothing special, in a sense. It's about following your intuition, trying and living your passion [to] the fullest, and making the most of every day you're given," she said.
The Friday and Sunday concerts also feature Stokowski's orchestration of Bach's "Toccata and Fugue" and Beethoven's Symphony No. 4.
On Saturday, the PSO musicians and Mr. Honeck will perform a benefit concert for the PSO Musicians Care fund, which raises money for local music education programs. That event takes place at 8 p.m. in the Upper St. Clair High School auditorium and features music by Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Johann Strauss and Tchaikovsky.
Tickets are $25, available at community.pittsburghfoundation.org/psoconcert or 412-394-2624.