Unrecognisable conversation is one of my first and favourite memories. As a very young child I lived in the countryside, so memories of trips to places where there were large groups of people stand out. Back then, perhaps my command of language was not strong enough to analyse the individual sounds and destroy the perspective of the whole. I felt at home.
At the beginning of the summer, here in Paris, surrounded by a language I strive to understand but which envelops my comprehension, I am back to being three. It has its benefits. Perhaps it’s the reverse of a performance. Once a violinist alone onstage, outnumbered by the audience, now sitting on the other side of the see-saw. Paris performs for me alone, a secret production with a cast of everybody.
As musicians, we organise sound, practically, and aesthetically. It is very easy to lose track of what we do by doing it so closely and repetitively that the painting just becomes paint. The perspective of changing cultures offers the chance to understand the roundness of cultural experience.
I arrived here shortly before 14th July. That weekend I attended three concerts. One was Mark Anthony Turnage, Ensemble Intercontemporain and Wayne McGregor’s collaboration with the Paris Opera Ballet on Francis Bacon; the next on the eve of Bastille Day was Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Both of those concerts were, appropriately, at Opéra Bastille. The third, on the 14th itself, was in the Bois de Boulogne, the Parc de Bagatelle, in the Orangerie next to a rose garden that would make Hyde Park blush, the closing piano recital of the Chopin Festival given by Hélène Tysman playing Bach, Chopin, Debussy, and Ravel.
The Bacon piece was polished and passionate. Every element was completely absorbing. I loved the sense of presence, with the choreography creating spaces on the stage and in the bodies of the dancers who inhabited the music for its own sake. I think that when performance is at its best it is a led meditation, allowing the audience to live in that moment exclusively. To see this happen in a collaborative setting inspires awe.
It felt as if Philippe Jordan’s light and elegant reading of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was not played by L’Orchestre et Chœurs de L’Opéra national de Paris, but by the large, well dressed audience, filled with families of every generation. The audience willed it into existence, aware of the importance of ideas, on the site where ideas (and food shortages) were being transformed into political change for France, exactly 226 years earlier.
Except for the two restless young boys who were sitting beside me. I’m pretty sure they hated it. Their grandmother tried and failed to calm them down, but a twenty-something couple who turned around and brusquely and successfully hushed the children demonstrated to me something that I miss in England. Firstly, a sense of community that permits a stranger to object directly to the unsuitable behaviour of a child, and secondly the sense of the importance of culture within that community to such an extent that people are prepared to stand up on behalf of the cultural experience and fight for it in the face of a possibly defensive parent. Perhaps it’s just that I’m so used to London where what should seem normal and common sense doesn’t prevail, that here I see the audience en rose. Whatever the reason, I did feel that the hope of the ideas in the music was in some way reflected in the occasion and through the collective attitude of the audience.
And it was the audience, well more like a specific member of the audience, who enchanted me at the Bois de Boulogne. Tysman’s very demanding and pleasing programme was executed with conviction and flair, in a setting that was filled with flowers, light and beauty. It’s a bit of a walk to get to the Orangerie, but once you’re there, you don’t want to leave. After the concert, like many of the other audience members, I took a stroll in the stunning rose garden.
It was a smile exchanged with a woman one generation my senior, on the gravel path; a smile that said we can appreciate this beauty privately, for its own sake, with no words, with no ambition, no fight, and no search for reassurance. We both just knew how lucky we were to be there on that sunny day, and while the rest of France had its eyes on le Champ-de-Mars and la tour Eiffel awaiting the Harry Potter-esque fireworks, we were present in that quiet moment, in that culture, in that appreciation, with nothing to prove. I loved her for sharing that with me.
So where is all this leading? I don’t exactly know. The new perspective has led me to be much more relaxed about direction. Perhaps above all, it has reinforced my understanding that culture is important because it is shared; it has a grammar that goes beyond the definition of each individual event, or even each individual. I found Schiller and Beethoven’s Freude, schöner Götterfunken in the audiences of the Bastille; in the rebellion and sensuality of the Bacon collaboration; in a shared quiet smile; in a city of tradition, care, privacy, the eternal present and a collective experience. I feel at home.
The moments pass, and it’s time for la rentrée. As I prepare to leave, I pick up Verlaine’s dark Poèmes saturniens. Even his Chanson d’automne inspires joy, because he wrote it for me, and for you, and for the stars.