B Minor Mass in Notre Dame by the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris

You see the posters all over major European cities, especially during tourist season: classical music concerts in famous local churches.  "Tonight, 8 PM, in the Church of Our Lady: Mozarts Eine kleine Nachtmusik ("A Little Night Music")."  Or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, or perhaps Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony.  It’s always a well-beloved classical chestnut, recognizable to all.  The performers are usually an ensemble you’ve never heard of, like the "Glorious Classical Strings," or the "Soloists of Rome," or something similar.

I don’t want to be too snobbish here: there’s nothing wrong with performing classical music in glorious churches for the benefit of tourists.  I’ve been to a few of these concerts myself, since that might be the only thing going when you hit the city.  But the performers tend to be either students supplementing their income, or rather bedraggled-looking adults.  The problem is that they have to play the same pieces — popular, recognizable classical hits — 3-4 times a week, with no real variation in the program.  How much verve and sizzle can you bring to your 3,467th performance of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik?

So I was a little suspicious when I saw a listing for a performance of Bach’s "Mass in B," in the Church of Notre Dame, by the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris.  My fears were dispelled when I hit the web.  The ensemble is a permanent small orchestra with a website and a music director I’ve heard of; in fact I’ve got recordings by him.  Further, a performance of the the Mass in B Minor is not something you can just casually throw together; you need a small orchestra, vocal soloists, and a double-choir, and the Mass lasts almost two full hours. 

Notre Dame was completely full for this concert; I showed up about 20 minutes before the concert, and got one of the last seats.  The last light of the day slowly faded from the stained-glass as an old man with long white hair and a silver crucifix pinned to his left lapel approached the microphone.  I assume he was a priest.  He gave a brief disquisition on the glories of the B Minor Mass, making liberal use of the word glorieuse, spiriturelle, and profondeur.  Then the small orchestra took the stage.  Behind them the chorus (the Maitrise de Notre Dame) stood in four rows, clad in royal-blue robes.

As soon as the music started, my fears were dispelled.  The chorus showed its mastery with a measured, dignified opening Kyrie, and the vocal soloists were all first-rate (with the exception of one slightly wobbly soprano).  The conductor, John Nelson, kept everything humming along with crisp, sprung rhythms, and the strings played without vibrato.  What most impressed me most was the orchestra itself.  The B Minor Mass has numerous tricky solo parts for bassoon, double-bass, violin, and flute.  When these arias came, individual orchestra members stood up to form a more intimate, chamber-like feel, and delivered expert, nuanced performances.  The bassoonist and double-bass player were especially lively and vivid.  At the end of the concert, after the majestic Dona Nobis Pacem that closes the Mass (accompanied by the Organ), the reverberations took at least five full seconds to die away. 

This was the best performance of the B Minor Mass I’ve ever seen.  You don’t have to take my word for it; there was a camer team there filming the entire performance for a broadcast on Arte, and it will be released as a DVD as well.  I was impressed enough that I’ll consider buying some recordings by the Ensemble Orchestral, if you’d like to as well, look here.  Next time you’re in Paris, think about taking in a concert by the EOP.

The Museum of Old Montmartre

The Museum of Old Montmartre is a fine little museum housed in a large complex of buildings on the Rue Cortot.  The house that forms the core of the complex was built in the mid-17th century an actor and playwright.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the house on the Rue Cortot was extensively sub-divided, and its tiny rooms became preferred lodging for artists in Montmartre, a hill near what is now the northern perimeter of Paris proper.  Back then, Montmartre was still rural.  Chickens squawked in the streets, urchins scampered around looking for odd jobs, and plumbing was nonexistent.  Artists moved into in Montmartre’s shabby, muddy streets to escape Paris’ high rents.  Dancing establishments and interestingly questionable bars soon followed, and the sleazy, enchanting Montmartre that we see in Toulouse-Lautrec’s sketches was born. 

This museum is another charming, idiosyncratic Paris museum.  It’s cramped and crammed.  There are no audioguides or interactive touchscreens.  The core of the museum’s permanent collection is devoted to the people who lived in one of the house’s many rooms at one time or another in the late 19th and early 20th century.  These residents comprise a cross-section of artists both world-famous (Raoul Dufy, Maurice Utrillo; very tangentially Auguste Renoir) and less so (Emile Bernard, Francisque Poulbot).  Many of the paintings and sketches from these lesser lights crackle with vitality and wit, and you’ll wonder why you don’t know their names.  One room is dedicated to the indescribably voluptuous Suzanne Valadon, a longtime resident of the house.  She started her career as a model, continued it as an object of devotion (from, among others, the world’s oddest man, French composer Erik Satie), and finished it as an accomplished painter.

Other parts of the museum evoke the neighborhood in general.  Several vitrines feature invitations to the various dance-halls and theatres, every one is a whimsical, irreverent masterpiece.  Especially cool is the invitation to the show featuring the “Hanging Man,” a hunger-artist like fellow.  His specialty was odd physical feats: standing absolutely still on top of a pedestal for a month, or locking himself in a box and not eating or drinking for three weeks.  He came to Montmartre and remained hanging from a rope for 13 straight days.  The invitation features 13 silhouettes showing his body stretching further and further downward and a tongue protruding ever farther from his mouth.  Another room features a pewter bar rescued from a famous Montmarte dive, an exhibition dedicated to André Malraux and his relationship with a modern Greek artist who lived in the house during much of the 20th century, and a film about Montmartre in general.

The funniest exhibit is a bust of the French Catholic novelist and pamphleteer Leon Bloy, surrounded with excerpts from his letters.  Bloy’s home in another part of Montmartre was condemned to make room for the Sacre-Coeur cathedral, and he was forced to move his family into the house at 12 Rue Cortot in 1906.  He hated it: the concierge insulted his family as “those Jesuits” behind his back, atheist dress-shop employees who lived on the other side of the courtyard mocked his daughters when they practiced singing their confirmation hymns, and the rooms stank and crawled with vermin.  Bloy finally gathered the means to leave, and bid farewell to the house “pledged to the Devil.”

Anyone can love the Museum of Old Montmartre, but it’s even better for people who can read French, since most of the exhibits are not translated.  I left feeling a strong sense of nostalgia for a place I’d never been, and what higher praise can there be for a museum?

French Words of the Week

There comes a time in life when you finally settle down into a stable relationship.  The relationship can take many forms: it might be a marriage, might be shacking up.  The point is, you’ve stopped looking, and you’re ready to work on building a life à deux. The French call this stabilisation sentimentale.  According to some French government study, it happens to French men when they’re 36 years old, and French women when they’re 29.

A concussion is a commotion cérébrale (F).

And now, the pièce de résistance.  What the American military calls an "Improvised Explosive Device," or a homemade bomb, is called, in French, a bombe artisanale.  Add your own cynical jokes in the comments…

Jerry Lewis: Living God

We English speakers enjoy taking the piss out of the French for their love of Jerry Lewis.  Do they really love him so much? 

Or, I should say, do they really love Him so much?  From an ad in Tuesday’s Libération (Libé for short), about an interview they will publish tomorrow:

The weapon of mass hilarity [pun untranslatable]: A conversation with living god Jerry Lewis, who is publishing his memoirs and who evokes his maximum-burlesque career in nine images.

Emphasis added.

The Glories of Vanves

The suburb of Paris in which I’m staying is called Malakoff, and the specific part of Malakoff is called Vanves.  It’s just south of the periphery road that circles central Paris, about 10 minutes from Montparnasse by Metro. 

A while ago, I rudely called Vanves "drab," and now I’d like to make up for that piece of snarkery.  I’ve taken several strolls in and around Vanves, and I like it.  No, you don’t have any elegant Haussmann-style townhomes or Art Nouveau facades here, it’s solidly middle-class.  But that’s perfectly fine.  Parisians who wear precisely-tailored clothing, discreetly expensive cologne, anBuildings_with_chimney_trails_in_vanves_d aggressively rectilinear glasses are intimidating.  Especially at restaurants.  The waiter puts 7 different kinds of cutlery before you, some of which look like 18th-century surgical instruments.  You are confused and intimidated, but the perfectly-coiffed Frenchman next to you deploys them expertly to crack the lobster claws, extrude the escargot from its shell, or pry open the clam.  You feel inadequate, and begin to understand why people burn cars here.

But then you come to Vanves, among the hairdressers, Metro drivers, flight attendants, lower-level bureaucrats and office workers, and you feel just fine.  They still look good, but not aggressively good.  They buy frozen pizzas, in addition to the obscure cheese and sublime baguettes.  They have 1997 hairstyles.  They’re wearing imitation adidas sneakers.  The stores here sell wine in giant plastic tubs that looks like antifreeze containers.  The people of Vanved are just plain folks.  Like most French people I’ve ever met, they’re friendly and helpful.

And the neighborhood is not without its charms.  Check ouPainting_on_trouvailles_depotvente_1t the buildings to the left — the chimney vents are encased with a special dark-colored brick, and snake up the side of the building like ivory in reverse.  Or to the right, a Paris_locksmith_shopFrench consignment shop, with its hand-painted advertisement.  So Vanves is not ‘drab,’ it’s just a bustling, lively suburb.  And a nice place to spend a few weeks.

Finally, I’d like to show you a picture I took today of the shop-window of a locksmith in the 6th arondissement.  I’m no cultural anthropologist, but I think there’s something very French about this locksmith shop.  Can you spot what it is?

German Joys Goes to Paris

Hello Joysters!

From the 16th of March to the 31st, the German Joys Editorial Staff, that is, me, will be in Paris for a two-week intensive French course. 

The staff, that is, me, will return on the 31st of March.  during that time, I will try to post some entries.  However, you may notice the posts taking on a disturbingly, err, French character. Yes, this is very regrettable.  As Ian Fleming wrote in 1960, Paris’ "heart was gone….pawned to the tourists, pawned to the Russians and Rumanians and Bulgars, pawned to the scum of the world which had gradually taken the town over."

As a "scum of the earth," I plan, in my obnoxiously American way, to also "take Paris over."  But I hope you will bear with me during this attempt.  I promise that, come 1 April, German Joys will return to healthy Teutonic content.

Until then, à bientôt, Joysters!

The Yugoslavian Matchstick Pimp and Other Characters

When you’re confused by the world and need a place to turn, you don’t go to some flashy bar full of young advertising executives. You go to your local Kneipe (bar), where the neighborhood’s stories are made, told and cherished.

Last night, a friend and I visited one such place, just around the corner from where I live. It’s tiny, there’s no music, the decor strictly plastic, fibreboard and linoleum. The walls were pink and green, and decorated with posters of Marilyn Monroe and crooked-hanging fantasy landscapes that looked like Yes album covers.  When we decided to play some pool, the owner had to find a cue-ball for us. But he did.

A 1 by 1.5 meter model building perched on top of the cigarette machine caught our eye.  It was made entirely out of matchsticks. As I know from experience, only people with a lot of time on their hands — such as prison inmates — build complex objects from matchsticks. And this one had a lot of time on his hands. The building was least five stories, with arched entryways, working doors and windows, and various balconies.

The owner of the Kneipe, a friendly Albanian approximately named Dan, noticed our curiosity. We had been getting plenty of attention from him.  We were his only customers. My suspicions were confirmed: a fellow from "Yugoslavia" made the building, starting during a prison stint and continuing through a long period of unemployment. Happily, the aimless young man finally found a calling in the service industry. He runs two bordellos (also called Freudenhaus — "House of Joy").

Dan then told us his life story. Came to Germany in 1960, worked 35 years in a machine-tool factory before being laid off. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, he opened up a fruit-juice store, "because I know a lot about juice." The rent got too expensive, though, and he had to shut the store down. So he became part-owner of the Kneipe just a few doors down. There will always be a bigger profit margin in alcohol than in fruit juice. 

Dan enjoys his clientele. Recently a well-educated Iranian visited him. This Iranian could speak 13 languages. He was a geschulter Mensch, according to Dan. According to the Iranian, most of his fellow Iranians can’s stand the Mullahs and their radical new President. Secretly, they’d love it if the U.S. knocked him off, too. And, in fact, that’s just what the U.S. is going to do, said the Iranian. On March 23th.

You heard it here first, folks: On March 23rd, things are gonna start cracklin’. And I and my friend know this, because we avoided the trendy nightspots and went to where the people who really know life can be found. And where the beer costs only 1 Euro 50.

Watch helplessly as German Engineers Un-pimp Your Ride

Too many boring policy monologues here recently, and too little joy.  So let me link to the lively new blog AngloFritz, which recently commented on and trackbacked to two German Joys posts.  [Good point about the recidivism, I’ll look into that soon.  Which means more policy, of course.  Pour yourself a stiff drink.]

As I browsed with pleasure through the blog, I found a post linking to recent VW ads in which white-clad German engineers un-pimp, or rather ün-pimp, the rides of several troubled urban youths.  Watch and learn as Karl-Heinz drops some serious Ordnung on the unsuspecting Amis…