Thursday, June 14, 2007

Vacation 3: More Paris

Friday: I'm beginning to think Paris and I exist together on a remote sliver of the bell curve, as I could not have scripted a couple of the little events that transpired today. On my last visit, my friend Chris and I wandered around the central part of the city, him accompanying me on my little pilgrimage from church to church to check out the organ lofts and spaces where the music I love was born. It turns out that the churches in question are spread around such that we got a pretty good tour of Old Paris by way of these landmarks. But better than this, we managed to stumble upon some very lucky happenstances, meeting some rather prominent musical people in several of these places and hearing some fabulous music in the process. Almost none of those occurrences were things we had any right to expect.

Today was like history repeating itself. Susan agreeing to indulge my whims, we began with a short walk to visit to nearby Cathedral of Ste. Clotilde. This was the musical home of two of my very favorite composers, Cesar Franck and Charles Tournemire, plus the very famous Jean Langlais. Set in a lovely, quiet neighborhood, the cathedral is smaller than the best-known in Paris (though very impressive just the same), but is in wonderful shape. And it has a smaller but still magnificent instrument by Paris's own Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (I read somewhere that the instrument was "decimated beyond recognition" at some point by a restoration, though it sounded lovely to me. But come to think of it, I have no recordings of it). We spent a few minutes marveling at the architecture before, unexpectedly, the organ began to play! Proof, if proof were needed, that I am a dyed-in-the-wool organ geek: the sudden speaking of those magical sounds in this huge, reverberant space just stops me in my tracks, mesmerized. Turns out the assistant organist was practicing, which resulted in a mini-concert of six or seven pieces for those of us who happened to be present. The final piece was 10-15 minutes long and used the organ's full resources. I was unfamiliar with the piece in question, but thought it might be the work of another of Paris's sons, the great Marcel Dupré. After he finished, I met and talked to the organist (whose name I had not heard and do not remember and cannot find online) and found out that this final piece was an improvisation! Astounding. Improvisation is an integral part of the French organ school, for both church services and concertising, and all the holders of the posts of Paris's greatest churches would be expected to be fluent in it. Based on the complexity and beauty of what he played, he was hugely talented. And the other pieces he played were of a variety of moods, utilizing the whole palette of the instrument. We could not have witnessed a better sales pitch for all the instrument could do. He was quite self-effacing to talk to, and very helpful about what other organ events might be going on. To hear those sounds in that space, especially with only three or four other people in the space (only one other of whom was paying attention) is really unexpected and moving. That made my whole trip. I can't help thinking of what an accomplishment it must be for him to get an assistant's chair at so prominent a place as St. Clotilde; eventually he will succeed to the top post. If you give a shit about any of this, this is like getting a call-up from a pro football draft.

From there we walked a bit further to St. Sulpice, where a fabulous high-end antique market had set up in the square out front. We spent some time looking around that, but soon realized we couldn't afford even the dust that was lovingly collected on this really, really old stuff. The church itself is undergoing massive renovation, and part of the facade was covered in scaffolding. There was even a little work shed with plexiglass windows where you could see the intricate carved stone pieces which had been lowered from the facade for cleaning and repair. What a huge undertaking. This church is second in interior volume only to Notre Dame, though there must be nothing to choose size-wise between these two and St. Eustache. St. Sulpice is of a different architectural flavor than the other two, though, seeming more massive and blockish.

It has probably the finest organ in Paris, one of the greatest in Europe--hell, one of the greatest organs ever built--a Cliquot / Cavaillé-Coll dating from the late 1800s. I have probably 20 recordings of it. The organ had fallen into a state of disrepair some years ago because the community could not agree on how to proceed with its restoration. One side said "This is the most significant organ in France and you mustn't change a thing when you restore it!" and the other side said "Cavaillé-Coll had his way with every significant instrument in this town which made his reputation; now it's someone else's turn; organ design and building is not a dead art!" And so they remained deadlocked for decades, and it was only Cavaille-Coll's superb initial construction which kept the instrument functioning. Eventually a restoration was undertaken which, I believe, left the great bulk of Cavaillé-Coll's work intact, and now the instrument is again in great shape. An organ of this size being over 100 years old and being used for several masses each week plus much practicing and concertizing would make huge maintenance demands; it's a wonder it works at all.

The organist's chair of St. Sulpice has been held by some of the biggest names in this musical world, most particularly Charles-Marie Widor (whose Fifth Symphony's final Toccata would be familiar to most, even if we didn't know it) and Marcel Dupré. In addition to each of these men practicing the organist's art at its very highest level, this instrument gave voice to all the other great talents as well: Vierne, Franck, Duruflé, Messiaen, Saint-Saens, Fauré, and countless others from France and abroad. On my last visit, I was allowed up into the organ loft to watch the brilliantly talented assistant organist, Sophie Veronique Choplin, play the 11:00 mass. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. While there was no music today, it's still quite special to have been in the place again.

Walking around I saw some pictures and information about the organ, with a hand-printed sign saying (or so I thought) the information was available in the adjacent sacristy. I headed in there, and a fellow told me that unfortunately there was no such information available, and that the church was very concerned that people be aware that the church is primarily a place of worship and not a concert hall. I managed not to blurt out that I didn't give a shit about all the gobbledygook in the front of the church, and that the building and the music were the only parts of the endeavor worth saving (though I may have rolled my eyes in disgust). But then he went on to talk enthusiastically about the instrument and the organists, so all was forgiven, my son.

From there we walked over to the Pantheon, yet another huge stone church, but this one was taken over by the state as soon as it was built (in, I think, 1791), to serve as a monument to the nation and its valiant soldiers. Inside is a Foucault's pendulum, by which it was proven to the lingering skeptics (in such a manner as made burning the heretics at the stake imprudent) that the Earth is, in fact rotating about its axis. And Victor Hugo and Emile Zola (among others) are buried in the crypt.

From there we headed next door to St. Etiénne-du-Mont, the church of my man Maurice Duruflé. A smaller cathedral than the others we'd seen, it's still one of the most beautiful and spectacular, with the carved-stone rood screen bisecting the sanctuary. And, lo and be-freakin'-hold, the organ began to play here, too! It turns out that the man currently holding Duruflé's old post, one Vincent Warnier, was giving a lesson to an advanced student. So we were able to sit and listen in for a good 45 minutes while they worked on, of all things, improvisation. I couldn't hear them talking very clearly from where I was (and wouldn't have understood anyway), but I was able to clearly watch the two men at work, the student sliding over at regular intervals to let the master demonstrate things. It was fascinating to hear what the student was trying to do, and to then see how the master would accomplish the goal, often demonstrating several different ways (his playing was markedly different, more assured and focused, and one could tell quite easily by sound who was playing). Afterward I was able to talk with the two of them about how improvisation is taught, and about what it means for this student to be immersed in (to my mind) such a spectacular and fertile musical world. The teacher was full of praise for the student's talents and potential, and the student was appropriately wide-eyed at the opportunity that lay before him.

Though Duruflé is my favorite among these 20 or so great composers, I had heard this instrument only on recordings, and it had not seemed on par with Paris's greatest. It's a more engaging instrument in person than I expected, but it was still the chance to see this school I so love in operation--and to see firsthand that the traditions live on thru our present day--that made the visit so special. And to witness this and the St. Clotilde mini-concert in the same day is just more than I had a right to hope for.

(Piano bar[ge] on the Seine)

From there we walked thru the narrow back streets toward the Seine and over to the Ile de la Cité and the Ile St. Louis, passing a hundred fabulous sights along the way. The big thoroughfares and landmarks are how one orients in Paris, but it seems like a whole different city back among these tiny, winding little streets, each with its small market and several sidewalk cafes. It's the rare street in the old city where you can see more than a block or two ahead of you, which gives everything an small, intimate feel. These places seem like where Parisians live. We passed a floating piano bar just across the river from Notre Dame, a small jazz group (with an American singer / guitar player) right behind Notre Dame, and, on the Ile St. Louis, had the city's best ice cream (according to Frommer's) next to a storybook park on a point of the island. Afterward, we strolled along the narrow shopping district on the little island (one of Paris's most expensive and exclusive places to live).

(Street band)

We made our way eventually down near the Eiffel Tower where we caught one of Paris's ubiquitous river cruises, the Bateaux-Mouches. These are on the river all the time, but especially at night with their banks of floodlights illuminating everything along the shores as they go. Ours was just before sunset, so no lights for us; but seeing the city along the two mile stretch of river from above the Ile St. Louis to just below the Eiffel Tower was a real treat. Not only does the city look different from this perspective, but each of the 20-some bridges is a work of art with its own history. Apparently Parisians are passionate about their bridges, with everyone having their avowed favorite. This was the best possible way to see these up close, and it's a great vista for everything else; we were both sorry we hadn't done the cruise sooner. It's also a great way to see what a sizable population of homeless people and transients have set up housekeeping along the banks of the Seine, under the bridges and beneath the highways. In some cases, people are living in regular camping tents--students backpacking across Europe, I like to think--and in others, semi-permanent scrap-wood shelters have been erected with piles of belongings stacked neatly outside. We decided that the squatters must cause no trouble or, better yet, may even increase the security for the sizable tourist throngs, or I imagine the city would sweep them out without too much trouble. Even so, it's hard to imagine they're allowed to stay.

Afterward we strolled back toward the hotel, stopping at a place which promised good cheeseburgers (we were hungry for something familiar). And so they were, good if not altogether familiar--their idea of "cheddar cheese" differs quite a bit from what we expect in Wisconsin! And lest everyone think we're irredeemably crass, we began our supper with a shared appetizer of fresh mozzarella and tomato slices drizzled with olive oil and basil. Yummy! Another 8 or 9 miles walked for the day, we were happy to get back to our room and take a load off.

(The great effort of holding up the tower!)

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