Tuesday, February 10, 2009

It was rainy and windy this morning so I trekked over to the Musee Orsay again, with the idea of spending a couple of hours feasting on the works of the pre-Impressionism artists. Their works are displayed on the ground floor just beyond the entry point and for me they more than carry their share of the glory in this grand Belle Epoque showroom. These mostly French artists produced so many timeless works:
Millet’s “The Gleaners”; Manet’s famous painting of the nude relaxing during lunch with two starchy gentlemen; Courbet’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Man”. These and dozens and dozens of marvelous paintings fill every nook and cranny and serve as a preface for the much more popular artists of the Impressionist movement. The upper floors are more crowded because of the big drawing cards such as Monet, Lautrec, Van Gogh, Cezanne and the rest. Showstoppers, many of them, but I rather like the ground floor best.
I had some pate de fois gras at lunch in the Mucha Cafe, he being a Czech artist whose work I have admired for several years now. Mucha made quite a name for himself painting posters of Sarah Bernhardt during the last century and I have been eyeing his lithographs for sometime now. The are the personification of art nouveau and I am captivated by them.
Toscanini, when asked which was his favorite Beethoven Symphony, is said to have replied, “The one I just finished conducting.” So which is my favorite? Perhaps the two I heard tonight, the Fourth and the Seventh. These monumental pieces were performed by one of the great orchestras in the world, the London Symphony. This is an ensemble which, according to Gramophone Magazine, ranks fourth, behind Amsterdam, Berlin, and Vienna, and just ahead of The Chicago Symphony, in today’s pantheon of the best of the best. It is led, well it is commanded, by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, and he and his orchestra are something to see and hear. They are in Paris for three performances and all of them have been sellouts, which just makes getting a seat a bit more challenging, and costly. But I ended up with an orchestra seat for tonight in the Salle Pleyel, which I had vowed to revisit after being less than impressed with the place during a recent concert. When push comes to shove, acoustics matter more than the paint job in assessing the worth of a performance hall, and the opening notes of the second movement in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony will put any accoustics to test. Pleyel passed nicely tonight. I had not seen Sir John before and I have to say that he is surely one of the most imposing people I have ever seen with baton in hand. He is very tall and he strides on to the stage exuding a kind of palpable confidence that all great conductors seem to have. And he is terrific. He leaves nothing to chance, cajoling, waving the index finger of his left hand furiously, on tiptoes, on his heels, bringing every instrument and each section under his total control. He is exhilarating to watch and every member of the orchestra watches and responds to his every move. And they play flawlessly and gorgeously. And never with bombast, which is a challenge with a Beethoven score at hand. The audience was completely into the music, almost not breathing during those quite passages that mark both symphonies, and chattering nervously between movements. I sat next to Robin Kelly, a young musician/composer/student from New Zealand spending his summer vacation traveling across Europe, and we both agreed that this was one of those very special nights in the concert hall, with a performance every bit as good as you hoped it would be. Retiring with Beethoven on the mind is one sure way to have a deep sleep.

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