02 July 2009

Les Temps Modernes

We've not done a lot of what most people would consider culture since being in Paris. We're more likely to get on the bikes or spend our time cooking and eating than attending concerts, but I was jonesing for some music, and I'd seen in one of the event listings that there was going to be a chamber concert nearby at the Scots Kirk in the 8e. And not just any chamber concert, but a free chamber concert, with piano, violin, and clarinet. Now I'm no expert, but I'm guessing the piano, violin, and clarinet literature can't be that extensive, so that seemed good enough reason to check it out.

We almost walked right past the place on the way over, looking for a church, but it's housed in a nondescript 20th century apartment building, next to a Thai restaurant. We got there early and sat down in a small chapel/largish conference room in the basement. The church holds weekly musical events, and many of the people who came in seemed to know each other, lots of 2-cheek kissing going on. The range of people in attendance was remarkable, from elderly sophisticates to young hipsters, and plenty of hippies to go around, young and old, and no obvious Scots to be seen-- this was a French crowd. By 20.35, 5 min after the advertised 20.30 start time, all but maybe 10 of the 100 chairs were occupied. When he sat down, I told Karen that the guy behind us was going to be a talker through the whole performance. I was right, of course.

But I hadn't predicted that when it got to be about 20:40, still early in French time, The Talker started yelling in a big booming, self-impressed and insistent voice (that reminded me of nothing so much as the honking on our street below our apartment) to start the show, already, that it's time, and this is France (huh? maybe a shot at the non-present Scots?), so the show should start on time, French time. Yup, we're in Paris! Everybody turned around to stare, of course, with looks split about equally between amusement and scorn. Notably absent in the faces I saw, though, was the look of surprise. Was Old Yeller a regular? Or is there just an Old Yeller in every crowd?

The fellow setting up the official video camera in the center aisle, who looked like he might have been around the block as many times as Keith Richards, looked at Old Yeller for a few moments after the tirade and calmly replied that the show didn't, in fact, run on French time, but in musical time. Quite a civilized retort to an uncivilized outburst, and maybe even a little double meaning there, Keith? Nice. Old Yeller's wife/sister/nurse got up and started to insist that they leave, but he prevailed, and they unfortunately stayed for the whole show. Didn't they shoot Old Yeller in the movie? I guess even that was at the end of the movie, though.

The musicians entered about 10 min later, and after a seemingly endless introduction from the violinist, they started with the Khachaturian trio. It was a nice enough piece, at times derivative enough of Gershwin that I saw images of United Airlines commercials in my head, but well played. Old Yeller talked through most of it, of course, which annoyed Karen's neighbor enough that she thought he might actually going to turn around and punch him. As soon as the piece ended, Old Yeller boomed, "Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!" And as our eyes watered in the alcohol vapor cloud that washed over us, we realized that he was drunk. Later at the intermission, when he lit up a cigarette outside, we thought he might actually go up in flames. No such luck.

More interesting musically was the Stravinsky Soldier's Tale, written just a year before Stravinsky moved to Paris. The piece was new to me, and there was plenty of what I like best of Stravinksy, so angular, quirky and crisp, yet still driving and somehow open at the same time. The Bartok, officially commissioned by Benny Goodman, was considerably more dense and dissonant and less tethered, and it made for more challenging, but no less enjoyable, listening. In a first for me, the violinist came out with what seemed to be a "pit" violin. A pit bike in cyclocross racing is a spare that gets swapped out mid-race if the primary bike has mechanical problems or gets bogged down with mud. Wow, was it going to be that physical? Or muddy? Or maybe she was going to finally put Old Yeller out of our collective misery? Turns out the last movement just required a violin with the bottom 2 strings retuned by a semitone. Though unusual, it was the least interesting of the possibilities.

No matter, though. It's always fun to hear pieces for the first time, even if the "modern" in the program title referred to music written nearly a century ago, and there's no substitute for good live performances. And just like the dissonance and harmony in the music, we got to experience a high and low of Paris all at the same time.

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