Evening at the Champs-Élysées

The ceiling of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

Few musical venues hold an allure as compelling as the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. It is the very same place where the now legendary riots surrounding the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite Spring took place. There were fistfights and objects were thrown at the stage. The usually well-mannered French composer Saint-Saëns walked out appalled that the score called for instruments to play in such unusual and deviant ways (expanding the limits of what was thought possible). The choreography did not help either. The Russian dancer Nijinsky infused the scene with jagged dance-like gestures decorated by a morbid primitivism. No wonder the Rite had received such a mixed reception. But this was the year 1913. Paris was entering an era of artistic experimentation pointing towards the avant-garde. How would I love to have been there! As you peruse the space, special attention must be paid to the theater building itself. It is as artful as the work described. The facade is almost too simple. Inspired by the nascent Arts Deco movement of the time, the architecture exudes a fresh perspective and plainness at the same time. (Very unlike the traditional and ornate Parisian trend.) It is always a wonderful experience to visit such historic places and try to immerse oneself in narratives of the olden days. Ironically, no modern works were presented here tonight. I heard both Chopin concerti played by Polish pianist Rafał Blechacz, a very intelligent and serious artist who identifies himself very well with the composer’s music. Chopin, a Romantic, lived in Paris for most of his life but seldom played in large venues such as this. Most of his performances were held in private salons or at homes for highly discerning audiences. For this same reason, the music should always convey a sense of intimacy. Blechacz was able to achieve this effect by being both exceptionally close to the music and completely aware that any unnecessary mannerisms would disrupt its natural simplicity. Chopin’s music can be easily spoiled by over indulging in it, but this was never the case. The inner slow movements sang with a controlled and soulful tone and the orchestral accompaniment led by Trevor Pinnock was sensitive to the nuanced phrasing.  They were memorable. He gave us three encores. Two short preludes by the same composer and a scherzo from an early Beethoven sonata which came as a very pleasant surprise.

Paris, January 2014. 

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