Travel Log: Notre-Dame de Paris

News came yesterday of the terrible fire at the Cathedrale de Notre Dame de Paris and I immediately thought back to my visit to the city in November of 2011.  I had arrived from Firenze, via an overnight train, to meet a jazz musician friend there on tour.  I was nearing the end of a three month trip, with my next and final stop being London, and I just remember being tired (mostly, I was pouting because I had to leave Italy).  I had traveled thousands of miles with just a back pack, and I was ready to go home, but there was no way I was going to leave without seeing Paris.

The weather was cool and crisp, but leaves weren’t quite ready to fall from the trees yet – they were still bursting with oranges and vibrant reds.  It was cloudy when I stepped off the train – the most terrible, dirtiest train in all of my travels through Europe, but my friend was staying at a nice hotel (contrary to hostels I had been staying at throughout).  I was so excited to take a hot shower, in a real bathroom, and have a fluffy omelette, with a cafe creme for breakfast.  I set out that afternoon to tour both the Notre-Dame and the Louvre (ambitious, yes, but I was only there for four days and needed to make it count!).  By this time, the clouds had cleared and the sun shown brightly over the city.

To my surprise, there was no admittance fee for the cathedrale and the line for entry was quite short.  Obviously, this centuries old building is magnificent in its own right, the rose windows mesmerizing and the relics all had stories of their own, but what stood out for me was the statue of Saint Joan of Arc, with the inscription: “Born in Lorraine, burned alive in Rouen as a heretic and a witch.  The decision to rehabilitate her reputation was made in this Cathedral.” And so it was in 1909, that the fierce warrior was beatified in the church by Pope Plus X, and later canonized in 1920.

Centuries had gone by, but the church finally made things right.  The church itself has also suffered great destruction and continuous restoration over the years.  Progress is slow, but seeing her statue there restored my faith in the idea of forgiveness – of knowing that even though the world spirals out of control sometimes, there are still good people to bring it back.  Even as she burned at the stake, Joan of Arc never lost faith, she never lost sight of what she believed. Without a doubt, the good people of France will, once again, rebuild.  And we too, will keep planting the seeds of change.

Saint Joan of Arc, (C) 2011 by Laura Riggs

Concert Review from Paris

On Thursday, I had the pleasure of attending an exceptional performance by the Orcheste de Paris conducted by Paarvo Jarvi, with a special guest, virtuoso violinist from Japan, Akiko Suwanai.  The performance was held at the Salle Pleyel, located at 252 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, in the business district of Paris.  The pairing of Grammy Award winning conductor Jarvi with Suwanai, the youngest person ever to win the International Tchaikovsky Competition, was superb for the musical selection, performed by this world renowned orchestra, to celebrate the new arrival of such an amazing conductor as Parvi.

As the musicians entered the stage, the audience applauded with anticipation of an evening full of glorious music written by composers from the Classical era.  The songs selected conveyed a hint of romance, heartbreak, and drama, perfect for a beautiful fall evening in Paris, set under a bright full moon.  Once Jarvi joined the musicians, the audience quickly muted their applause and sat quietly in their seats excitedly awaiting the full program of three magnificent compositions to be performed: Der Freischütz, overture by Carl Maria von Weber, Violin Concerto in E Minor (Op. 64) by Felix Mendelssohn, followed by a short intermission, and all five movements of Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz to round out the evening. The first song was the Der Freischüt Overture, composed by Carl Maria von Weber.  Weber debuted this piece in Halle, Germany July 31st 1820, after many years of collaboration with playwright Friedrich Kind.  Originally titled Die Jagersbraut, the opera’s name was changed to reflect the name of Johann August Apel’s novella, Der Freischütz, which the opera was written after.  The overture was quite a lively piece of work, that lasted approximately 12 minutes, and grabbed our attention while giving we, the audience, the opportunity to listen to each of the musicians marked talents. Weber himself explained Der Freischütz is constructed from two elements, “The world of the forest and hunting and the reign of demonic powers.” The first is characterized by an instrumentation using the horns and melodic writing of popular inspiration. The “sinister element” himself is rendered “dark and dismal,” obtained by “exploiting the deep recesses of the violins, violas, basses, the clarinet […], the melancholy sound of the bassoon, the lowest notes of the horns, the dark rolling of drums […].”

Indeed, the beautiful slow introduction is mainly to expose “the world of the forest.” Then in the Allegro following, the different patterns declines evil of the opera: the theme of Black Hunter (Samuel), the desperation of the hero (Max), entrusted to the clarinets, and the evocation of the terrible Throat-aux-Loups. The third part of the opening added a feminine element to the Opera (Agathe) because the clarinet themes of love for Agathe, whose melody, first worried, will eventually prevail and triumph over the forces of evil.  This triumph of Good allows the opening to find a jubilant ending which was demonstrated by Jarvi’s animated and lively direction of the musicians on stage. For this piece, Jarvi opted to decrease the size of the Orchestra slightly, to subdue some of the dynamic sound.  A portion of the percussion, brass and woodwinds sections were removed and the first and second violin sections were also reduced in size.  The piece was played at ff fortissimo level throughout, and the concert hall being a bit smaller than most, the adjustment in the number of musicians on stage was a good compromise for the robust sound projected during the Overture.

The second song was the Violin Concerto in E Minor (Op. 64) written by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.  Prompted by his friend, Ferdinand David (1810-1873), first violin of the famous Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, Mendelssohn began writing this particular concerto in the late 1930s.  He labored over the endeavor for many years before finally completing it in 1844.  It was first performed in Leipzig in the spring of 1945, with Mendelssohn conducting.    While the concerto respects the traditional three-movement classical-romantic format, Mendelssohn immediately innovated it by bringing the soloist in the second degree, skipping a traditional symphonic introduction. He connects the three movements together others by arranging short transitions leading from one to another, running and working in a continuous stream of sound – essentially a moderate allegro dreamer, a meditation and then the soloist sings a deliciously slow finale.  Suwanai, as the soloist, delivers a magical atmosphere typical of a carved musician, sparkling in sound.

The size of the orchestra was decreased once again, in order to highlight the delicate sounds of the solo, played by Akiko Suwanai.  She played softly, yet with wonderful dynamics, not once did the higher notes of the violin screech.  Regardless of the soft sound, the violin was crystal clear, yet she played with such vigor.  Suwanai broke a string on the violin during the beginning of the concerto.  She immediately traded instruments with the first chair violin and while he graciously repaired her violin, she played his so that the performance went uninterrupted.  She continued to play the piece as beautifully as she did on her own instrument, but it was interesting to notice that the sound between the two violins was distinctly different – the first chair’s violin had a deeper, more masculine sound, while her violin had a soft, feminine sound with marked timbre.  The audience was in awe of her seamless transition and calm demeanor.

Before the completion of the piece, the two traded instruments again and Suwanai was able to complete her solo on her beloved Antonio Stradivarius 1714 violin ‘Dolphin’, one of the most famous violins known today, and previously owned by the celebrated violinist Jascha Heifetz, which has kindly loaned to her by the Nippon Music Foundation.  At the end of the performance, the audience showed great appreciation for her masterful execution of the concerto, yelling out “Bravo!” “Magnifique!”, and “Encore!”  We all began clapping in unison until Suwanai returned to the stage for three mesmerizing encores.  After all of the excitement, the 15-minute intermission was welcomed opportunity to refocus my attention for the final composition of the evening.

The second half of the evening’s performances was dedicated entirely to the Symphonie Fantastique, composed by Hector Berlioz, in 1830.  It was written literally as an ‘Episode in an Artist’s Life’, rumored to represent Berlioz’s obsession with Harriet Smithson, an actress and his first wife.  Through the five moments of the symphony, Berlioz spells out his dreams in dramatic form. The slow waltz portrays the movement of the joys and sorrows before he sees his beloved.  During the fourth movement, the artist murders the woman and is then led to execution – at which point we hear the guillotine slice off the artist’s head, via a bow sliding across the strings of a violin, and the dramatic sound of it falling into a basket below by the drums.  The artist finds himself in a turbulent witches’ Sabbath, during the finale.   In 1855, the program was altered so that the artist awakens from whole dramatic episode as an end to a dream, not the end of their lives.  We heard the clarinet played a shrieking solo in E-flat reflective of the original finale as it was written, as presentation of his beloved’s image after death.  The explicit drama of Berlioz’s symphony calls for the full display of the orchestra. Thus, Jarvi added the harps, bells, tamarinds, large drums, and tubas.  He also increased the number of bassoons, trumpets, French horns and trombones to give the vivid action of the program’s unprecedented boldness and originality.

Since all three composers were friends and colleagues, it seems that this spirit was carried forward on stage this evening by the entire orchestra.  Mendelssohn attended the premier of Weber’s Der Freischütz, which created a sensation with the German press and he played the harp part of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique on piano at a benefit concert the composer had hosted on February 4, 1843.  Berlioz re-orchestrated Weber’s Der Freischütz for the Paris Opera in 1841, staying as true to the original composition by Weber as possible in his French translation of the work.  While this was Jarvi’s first-time conducting the Orchestre de Paris, there was a sense of fondness and respect displayed in his mannerisms.  The ease in which he floated about the work, with gentle prompting to beg for more from each section as he moved along in each piece, allowed for excellent showmanship from his entire orchestra.  While he came out four times, at the demands of the audience for an encore, the orchestra did not play one, but Jarvi used each opportunity to show his gratitude for a job well done by all of the musicians.

I have attended many symphonies in the past, but I cannot recall any of them having such thrilling artistry that I witnessed in Paris.  I left the Salle Pleyel with a feeling of joy and gratitude for the chance to listen to some of the most exquisite music of the Classical Era played with equal passion and perfection from musicians who undoubtedly love what they do and enjoy the chance to share it with so many.

Au revoir, Paris!

I am leaving this morning to jump on the Chunnel from Paris to London – it is a super high speed train that goes under the Puget Sound and takes 2-1/2 hours from point A to B (can we get one of these in the US please?!)  My time in Paris was just long enough to enjoy the beauty of the city, but leave just as I had my fill of contemptuous people.  While I am RANT-page this week, I also can’t stand the fact that they drag their dogs around like they are accessories and do not treat them like living beings – especially since I miss my pets an awful lot these days.  I want to kidnap all of these adorable little creatures and then straggle the Cruella DeVille looking mofo with the leash they are attached to (they walk their luggage better than their dogs).

As a final “F**k You” from the Parisians (as I do not blame all French people for the Parisians incredulous behavior), this little girl thought it would be a swell idea to mar my delicate psyche over breakfast this morning (cuz I haven’t had my fill of crazy yet, I guess).  I was enjoying my last luscious chocolate croissant, that I will have for a while, when this little curmudgeon came up and stuck her finger on the croissant!  She then proceeded to just keep poking it, while she looked at the shock and horror on my face, and asked if I was still eating it. I smacked her hand away, yes I SMACKED it (since her mother obviously wasn’t going to) and threw the damn thing on the floor.  Hell NO! I wasn’t going to eat it after her filthy little hands had been on it – and she wasn’t gonna eat it either (this is yet another example of why I don’t have children, not like you were wondering or anything….).

After I chased her out of the café, I ordered another croissant and guarded it like a rabid dog while I snarfed it down.  Then, I left to check the schedule to confirm which platform my train was leaving from. Just an FYI – if you take the Chunnel – the UK has Border Patrol Buffoons set up in the Gare du Nord Station so give yourself some time to be thoroughly harassed by these self-important ignoramuses.  My special friend asked me how long I would be in London….two days I said…..and then where was I going, she asked…..home to the States (hall-O-frickin-LU-jah!), I replied……and how long have you been away, she asked…..why do you ask, I asked…..because I have a right to…..really?  I mean really?  Am I in trouble?… she said…..then I don’t see how that is relevant, I said…….because I need to know if you are really going home, she said……well, it isn’t like I would want to stay in London….what do you do for work? She asked…..I laughed……

After further interrogation, she demanded that I produce my travel documents proving that I was leaving the continent.  I had printed nothing out because I have an e-ticket for my flight.  She did not understand why I didn’t have a printed itinerary…..uh…cuz I have an E-TICKET???  WTF?  Does she not understand that you never get a second chance to make a first impression and so far the Brits can kiss my ARSE – if I could I would leave from another city, but it was the cheapest option.  Ain’t no body in their right mind want to go to cold, foggy, rainy ass London anyway.  She finally relented and let me on the damn train with ONE minute to spare before it pulled away from the station at 10:12am (scheduled departure was 10:13am…..somebody got effed over I am sure of it….)

The girls sitting across from me on the train were squatting on the car, they had Russian accents, yet spoke English and they look like heroin addicts strung out waiting for their next fix.  They had all of their crap on the floor because they were too weak to lift their shopping bags to store them overhead like everyone else.  Then, they started pulling out a variety of foods to eat lunch – baguette, ham, brie.  As they were eating, they kept discovering bruises on their bodies from the good time they had the night before.  One girl had a similar style to Amy Winehouse, except that her hair was a faded grape color, and the other had box dye black with 3-day old eyeliner smudged across the bottom of her eyelids.  I have no idea how they understood what the other was saying as they shoved food in their faces while talking at the same time – are there no manners taught to children anymore, anywhere?!

I couldn’t take listening to them chew their cud any longer and finally put my headphones in to listen to some lovely Mozart this fine sunny, Sunday morning as the train whisked across the bright green countryside.  For being hungover, they sure did talk a lot – I am not sure they shut up the entire voyage.  The guy sitting next to me got up for breakfast and some other woman sat down.  When he came back, she asked if it was his seat and he said yes, but that he would find somewhere else to sit.  I am curious as to why the Brits do not understand seat assignments, or why they are too polite to kick a bitch out when appropriate to do so?

Sigh…..this is going to be a long two days, isn’t it?  Maybe it is best for me to just take a long winter’s nap until my flight leaves for the States……

I love me some dead people!

After I posted pictures of the cemetery I visited in Nice, a friend of mine recommended that I visit the Pere Lachaise cemetery during my visit to Paris – seeing as how I enjoy hanging out with dead people and all.  At least the dead people aren’t rude, something that the Parisians, who are alive and wreaking havoc on the polite and intelligent, can’t claim. Pere Lachaise is one of the largest cemeteries in Paris and was established in the early 19th century by Napoleon (the little shit struck again!), but it was built farther out from the city, making it a less appealing option for funerals at the time.  In addition, it is a non-denominational cemetery, which was a huge issue for many Christians back in the day (and for some who are riding the short bus in life, it still is).  As a marketing ploy by the city, in order to build interest for a greater number of funerals (odd), the legendary couple Abelard and Heloise’s remains were transferred to the cemetery.

Now this was a fascinating story that I learned about a couple from the 12th century whose love was forbidden because he was a man of the church.  They had a baby and wed, in that order, in secret.  When they were found out, Abelard was castrated and Heloise was sent to be a nun (I have no idea what happened to the poor child, but my guess is that he had to go for extensive psychotherapy years later).  Today, people who are in the throes of the angst of love’s turmoil, or are hoping to fall in love, leave letters at their gravesite, begging for help, or an intervention, from the star-crossed lovers and the Universe.  I left no such letter – as I think Abelard was a bit of a self-righteous a-hole and Heloise was his co-dependent victim and why the hell would I want their advice in getting back into another relationship similar to the one from whence I just came?  Thank you and NO, check please!

There are many other famous people buried at Pere Lachaise that I would rather visit.  And it just so happens to be the most visited cemetery in the world (which also means that there are hundreds of thousands of other weirdos like me who want to commune with the dead, too).  The cemetery generously provides you with maps of where these gravesites are so I was able to conduct a fun little scavenger hunt of the gravesites, taking photos and they told me I would get a prize if I found them all the fastest of a pain de chocolat (good thing I walk faster than Physics will allow – I got not one prize, but two – can I get a wha-what?).

Annnnnyhooooo… was not only fascinating to see th e final resting places of Frederic Chopin, Georges Bizet and Jim Morrison, but also to learn about some of the freedom fighters buried there like Victor Schoelcher and Dr. Sadegh Charafkandi (one of the victims of the 1992 Iranian assassinations in Berlin buried there).  Interestingly, these courageous heroes are not listed on the map, even the victims of the Algerian and Tanzania bombings in the 1980s – but every single artist who is buried there is on the map – and even the freak-a-zoid founder of Spiritism, Allan Kardec (which proves yet again how disconnected Parisians are from reality – I am surprised that Mark Zuckerberg is not Parisian, then I would have been able to add that to my reasons for my mass exodus from Facebook).  Of course the visitors to Kardec’s gravesite were the best for people watching.  You would have thought he had been raised from the dead with as much hooting and hollering as they conducted at his grave-site.  That or I was really in the middle of a Southern Born-again-Christian Revival Hoo-rah.  Talk about dramatic – the dude died in 1869 but his followers are convinced that they see visions of him walking around in the cemetery (they even had to post a warning site on his grave about this reedicUlousness – which you can view in the pictures I have posted).  I waited for at least an hour and he did not show, so I left to go see the Eiffel tower before the sun set.

If you haven’t been yet to see the Eiffel Tower (or Paris for that matter), get reserved tickets and you can skip the massive amusement park like line at the base of the tower (and all other things Paris).  Then you only have to stand in one to take the elevator to the top (like I did).  I hate standing in lines for anything because I am not patient, nor am I tolerant – so my ADD was working overtime and it was better to ease my annoyance with every person in the general vicinity of my being that afternoon to only have to stand in one REALLY long ass line.  Timing couldn’t have been better though, because by the time I did get to the top, the sun was just setting which made for some very spectacular views of the sky and the city, because the clouds from the day before were clearing (giving way for a gorgeous view of the full moon that evening as well).  As I descended the tower, they turned on the disco ball Las Vegas lights which made for a splendid show to watch from across the street at the Cite d-Archeologie.

I walked back to the business district to grab dinner, another bowl of pureed soup from another rude waiter – what is with the Parisians and pureeing their soup?!  This to me just screams out loud how lazy these people really are.  I mean the walking around aimlessly is bad enough, but maybe they are frowning like zombies because the food here sucks – I am think I need to do some recon and get back to you on this…..over and out, Charlie!

Orchestre de Paris

Today began with an excellent start – I had a REAL breakfast consisting of an omelet, bacon, 2 cappuccinos, and 3 croissants.  I am so excited to be back in the land of delicious, buttery bread (and maybe on just a touch of a sugar high right now)! I have a full schedule today, so it is good to load up for the day.  I spent the day at the Musee de Louvre, as all good tourists on their first trip to Paris do.  It was fantastic, but I didn’t realize how HUGE it is!  I spent most of the day there and was kicked out when the museum closed before I could see one entire wing of the building. Originally built in the 12th century as a fortress and palace of the king, the Louvre was converted to a museum in the 16th century and has been continually added to over the years (it changed names briefly, however, under Napoleon’s rule to Musee Napoleon…..what a little narcissist!).  The Louvre now houses over 35,000 objects in the vast 600,000+ square feet of the building!

The museum has an astonishing collection of everything from Egyptian artifacts, to Syrian and Iranian artwork, to the Mona Lisa (of course I made sure to view that one 4 times!), to Napoleon’s apartment of antique furniture, to modern day contemporary pieces.  I love how they have laid the museum out and the curators have put quite a bit of thought into how the artwork is displayed in such a manner that compliments the unique characteristics of each room.  It is probably a good thing I missed seeing a third of the building because my head was swimming through statues and oil paintings by the time I left at 6pm.  I also had to haul ass back to the other side of the city in time to see a concert for the Orchestre de Paris with special guest Violin Virtuoso Akiko Suwani.  (Don’t you love how I arranged a trip to Europe in order to get my homework done for school? I do!)

But, before going to the concert, I made sure to eat at a lovely French restaurant with a rude waiter serving pureed vegetable soup.  By the way, the whole Parisians are rude rumor is absolutely true!  I have never seen so many people surrounded by such beauty, art and tremendous architecture look so miserable in my whole life.  People – you live in an artistic and cultural mecca – smile every now and then?!  (or maybe they are worried their face will crack from the dehydration…hmmmm…)

The symphony was 3-1/2 hours long because the audience was so elated with her performance that we demanded no less than THREE encores (at least the Parisians can muster showing some enjoyment at the symphony). She played her little ass off (actually she is quite tall, so what am I talking about… little?) – broke a string on the violin and everything.  The best part was she traded out instruments with the 1st chair violinist of the orchestra and rocked his violin too!  I don’t think he knew that it was capable of hitting the high notes with such clarity and softness until she schooled him.  The conductor was just as much fun to watch too, he was colorful, lively and dramatic with his direction of the orchestra.  I left the concert hall at 11:30pm again full of such creative zeal and vigor that I practically danced all of the way back to my hotel, humming the works of Mendelssohn and Berlioz all the way.

Thankfully, the next day was cold and cloudy so that I could take a day to absorb all of the terrific artistry from the day prior.  It worked out well, since I couldn’t seem to get into a museum due to massive lines at ALL of them.  The Parisians have a day off this week and they are finally getting out and having some fun!  If they don’t smile and find some gratitude for their delightful culture soon, I may have to kick their unpleasant asses.