Friday, February 20, 2009
And to think I almost did not go inside the Pantheon! The guidebooks suggest that the interior of this vast building, which looms above St-Germain and can been seen from all over the place, is a bit tiresome. No it is not. But first, on my way to have a look at the Pantheon, I stepped into Pema Thang, a Tibetan restaurant. Sort of a shrine to the Dali Lama and the Free Tibet crowd, and a good spot. Just to be sure the mood was properly evinced, the two special house drinks were Yak Driver and Everest Cooler, and those monk chants I had heard at the music museum in Brussels played on the speakers. I hummed right along as I savored meatballs in sweet and sour sauce and rice. I asked for bread and the waitress apologetically said all they had was Tibetan hot buns. She was right to apologize. They tasted something like warm, uncooked Crescent rolls without yeast, sugar, seasoning. Next time, I will pass. I will not pass the Pantheon again. Built in the middle 1700s by Louis XV as a means of thanking Paris’ Patron Sainte Genevieve for helping him recover from a near-fatal illness, the king really outdid himself. He engaged Jacques-Germain Soufflot, noted Parisian architect of the time, and it was Soufflot’s idea to build something more grand than St. Peters Basilica in Rome. It actually is modeled along the lines the Pantheon in Rome and it every bit as splendid. Focal point inside—once you quit gawking at the giant pillars supporting the huge, spectacular dome—is the center of the transept, where Leon Foucault demonstrated his famous pendulum in 1851. As we know, the earth has been revolving around it ever since. But what is truly grand here: the art which covers all of the walls along the main floor of this massive place. It consists of maroufles, oil paintings on canvases which are fixed by an adhesive to the walls and thus are permanent. The original Pantheon had lots of windows everywhere, but the revolutionaries bricked them up, leaving precious little light to stream in from the small windows high in the dome. It was a church-no church-church place for about 100 years, finally becoming the secular entity it is today with the 1885 funeral of Victor Hugo, who is buried in the crypt below. A few years before Hugo arrived, someone had the bright idea to commission several of the best artists in Paris to create these gigantic paintings which depict the life of Genevieve in particular and more generally touch on the beginning of Christianity and the monarchy in France. Beautiful, beautiful. Along with Hugo downstairs may be seen the burial vaults of Voltaire, Rousseau, Zola and on and on. There is a little brochure in English which serves as a guide, and some of the signage in the crypts also is in English. This is mighty helpful to folks like me. Nice segue here, for in the pantheon of great orchestras of the world, the Vienna Philharmonic is always to be found listed as one of the two or three best. They were at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees tonight. Not surprisingly, it was a sellout performance and not surprisingly it was a signature evening. Under Zubin Mehta’s measured baton, the orchestra played with spit-polish precision, first performing Haydn’s London Symphony (#104) then flexing their musical muscles to fill the second half with Bruckner’s magisterial Ninth Symphony. This is the kind of piece which allows an orchestra to showcase its brilliance, individually and collectively, and the Vienna blazed along with the sort of depth and dynamics which the work demands and which this orchestra handles so very convincingly. It was a triumph and brought thunderous applause and curtain calls galore. No encore here, but for me there was another chapter this night. Nancy Machiah didn’t make the concert but she did make reservations for post-concert Italian fare nearby at Ristorante Romano. Joining us were friends of Nancy and a particularly attractive couple, Florent Andrieu and his girlfriend Gwenaelle Auge. Florent is in business school and Gwen is studying medicine and they look like they just stepped off the pages of a high-end fashion magazine. They are great fun, speak English well and of course I want them both to come to the U. S. as soon as possible. I am going to work on it and be insistent. But before that, after our visit tonight we made plans to gather for dinner one night next week. Lucky me. Lucky life.