Brexit through the gift shop: in Paris, the show must go on. British choir Tenebrae at Sainte-Chapelle

Morrissey

This blog is named after the Morrissey song Throwing My Arms Around Paris. Curiously, I couldn’t find any public commentary from that sharp-tongued Mancunian about this week’s dumbfounding news that Britain is set to leave the safe, loving arms of the European Union. So I mentally rifled through his catalogue. Panic [on the streets of London] is somehow comforting; National Front Disco rather worrisome, and Your Arsenal downright chilling- “You wonder how we’ve stayed alive ’til now…We may seem cold, or we may even be / The most depressing people you’ve ever known / At heart, what’s left, we sadly know / That we are the last truly British people you’ll ever know.” And let’s not forget that Moz is a drape-himself-in-the-Union-Jack kind of guy.

In the end, I think Gilbert & Sullivan got it right in 1878 and not much has changed since. Topsy turvy indeed.

With all my expat friends (on both sides of the Channel) reeling from the morning’s referendum results, I reminded myself that there was nothing stopping me from throwing my arms around Paris as usual. Brushing Morrissey and G&S aside, I opted for solace at the breathtaking medieval Sainte-Chapelle, where the superb British chamber choir Tenebrae were to perform under bewildering circumstances.

Sainte-Chapelle is the place in Paris that reminds me, perhaps more radiantly than  any other, just why I traded Bondi Beach for Haussmann’s boulevards; and why I’ve fought so hard for my place in Europe. You hardly need to set foot on the distinctive coloured tiles of the Upper Chapel to fall under the spell of the vaulted blue ceiling with its gilded constellation of regal fleurs-de-lys. Or bask in the light of soarng wall-to-wall stained glass windows, the oldest in Paris.

At Sainte-Chapelle, the London-based choir Tenebrae and their director Nigel Short were the first Brits I came face to face with in the aftermath of Brexit. And they had prepared a glorious feast of Renaissance and contemporary music from countrymen Henry Purcell, Thomas Tallis, Gustav Holst and John Tavener. (All this around the central work on the programme, the Allegri Miserere mei, and the in situ premiere of Eric Whitacre’s work Sainte-Chapelle, inspired by and named for this very church.)

Photo by Jérôme Prébois

Photo by Jérôme Prébois

Rather than facing the audience to begin, the 16 singers and conductor positioned themselves behind us, directly underneath the ornate circular ‘rose’ window. This freed up our eyes to drink in the splendour of the light catching the intricacy of every glass panel as the harmonies of Alonso Lobo’s Versa est in luctum enveloped us.

Choristers were sweating. You could hear the church bells and the sirens. But the stress melted away along  golden threads of polyphony. For the Burial Sentences of William Croft and Henry Purcell, they solemnly processed down the aisle to the front of the nave. I wondered if the end of an era and an uncertain future weighed heavily on them, casting darker shadows on such tragic music? If it was with heavy hearts that they sang ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away’? It was all very dramatic, anyway.

Throughout the lead-up to Brexit, the questions that plagued me had been of the self-absorbed variety: “Will there still be Marks & Spencer in France? Will I have to compete with a flood of English girls looking for a marriage of convenience?” But it was in this gothic church that I felt more acutely than ever before the true impact of this unfathomable turn of events and the sense of loss, shame and alienation many of my expat friends have expressed.

This deeply moving concert was presented by the Festival Paris Mezzo, whose founder Michèle Reiser certainly made the British guests feel welcome in her opening speech: “We understand more than ever now in Paris that a concert is an act of resistance,” she affirmed. “Concerts are about living in harmony together.”

Good luck Britain, from Paris with love.

The full concert was filmed for mezzo.tv and will be broadcast Wednesday 29 Juin, 8.30pm.

 

 

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All-night trance at the Louvre: Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds in Paris

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While all my friends back home are exploding Instagram with gaudy illuminations of the Sydney Opera House for the Vivid festival, Paris has taken the less-is-more route, preferring to make its most visited modern monument simply disappear. The massive photographic mural superimposed on the glass panels of the Louvre this month melts the imposing pyramid into the Baroque palace behind it, a trompe l’œil that has been delighting and confusing tourists and locals alike.

You’d have been forgiven for wondering why 300 twenty-something hipsters were queuing impatiently outside the non-existent Louvre entrance at midnight on Saturday, at a time when many Parisians in their age-bracket would be lining up for a sticky-floored nightclub. But this sold-out, all-night concert was far from just another Saturday at the iconic museum. This was the first time I’ve wiled away the wee hours from midnight til dawn reclining under the vast expanse of sky glimpsed through glass, all the while lullabied by two world-renowned electronic music producers improvising six hours of minimalist trance: Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds.

Despite their impeccable reputations, I’ve always been skeptical about these two pianist-composer/synth-knob-twiddlers, particularly the Berlin-based Frahm. I always assumed it was soft-core experimental classical music to recommend to people who blurt out they like Philip Glass. And as for Arnalds, isn’t all music coming out of Iceland good – and isn’t it all good in the same way? I went along to confirm my suspicions, hoping – as a long-suffering insomniac – to at least nod off from boredom as the repetitive loops turned my brain to crême brûlée. (Hated Max Richter’s eight-hour Sleep album, by the way.)

I have to admit I looked at my watch a few times throughout the night. Here’s how it all unfolded.

12:36 “I’ve seen Nils three times,” a French fan boasts to his friends behind me. Everyone in the queue is dressed the same and roughly the same age. We shuffle into the disappearing-act pyramid like 300 Alices through the looking glass. I enjoy the otherworldly experience of descending the spiral staircase into the darkened underground lobby of the Louvre while it’s devoid of tourists frantically seeking out the Mona Lisa. An army of striped Paris Plage deck chairs greets us, along with disc-shaped floor cushions. I count no fewer than twelve keyboards (including mellotron, Fender Rhodes, Roland, pump organ and toy varieties) for the two performers, crammed on a small makeshift platform. I’ve come straight from an orchestral concert at the Philharmonie and am already fading. ‘Wake me up if anything interesting happens,’ I instruct my date, though it’s hard to shut my eyes with the magnificent rococo palace looming over us, etched on the inky sky – so peaceful just hours after eleven people were simultaneously struck by lightning in a Paris park. (That happened, by the way.)

01:01 The usual wash of delicate piano and electronic fuzz. When organ clusters take over the enveloping chords, I’m drawn in long enough to open my left eye and observe the two boyish soloists; Arnalds with his backlit blonde halo and white t-shirt; Frahm in black, blending into the shadows.

01:42 ‘We didn’t really know what to do tonight, so we’re just playing together,’ Frahm addresses the crowd. The crowd approves. Musically, it seems to be about treading water, conserving energy for later. I’m not hearing anything particularly engrossing – some of it even sounds suspiciously new age, like in those guided meditation CDs – but I admit I do feel uncharacteristically relaxed as I sink into my canvas chair. Every time I’m about to drop off, applause bounces sharply off the marble surfaces, ripping me out of my reverie.

02:14 The sound I like best so far is the security patrol’s walkie-talkies sporadically blipping along with the gentle whirl of synths. Relieved I was only semi-conscious for some sort of poetry reading. I mumble to my date: ‘Just imagine if Ben Stiller were here.’

02:33 I don’t think this is what people refer to as ‘deep listening’ exactly, but I notice there’s a point I stopped tuning out and started tuning in.

03:19 A hypnotic slow groove brings me unexpectedly to my feet and compels me towards the stage. I tiptoe through the bracken of skinny hipster limbs along the floor. Up close, standing and swaying in a trance bubble, I realise just how riveting Frahm is in live performance as he moves decisively between Juno synth and Steinway, instanly banishing the stereotype of steely German techno nerd.

03:44 I appreciate the contrast of sock-dancing on marble and the abrasive clink of Heineken bottles on marble.

04:03 Arnalds seems to contribute more delicate touches to the duo’s sonic identity, but when they’re both on keyboards the energy builds in waves; it’s easy to understand why they have collaborated together so intensively. Dripping with sweat, Frahm takes a break from block chords to towel his face. The white stairs behind the stage have been transformed into a rippling light show – when did that happen? ‘It’s getting a little crazy,’ Frahm pants into the mic. ‘We’re going to calm things down a bit…But we’ll get back there later,’ he assures us.

04:17 ‘Nils is taking a break; he’s sweating too much,’ Arnalds jokes. A more reserved performer than Frahm, he dedicates a solo number to his grandmother who, he explains, insisted on playing him classical music when he was all mixed up in death metal bands. It was only after her passing, he recalls, that he truly started to discover what she had encouraged him to listen to, nurturing his signature austere strings-and-piano sound.

04:33 My date departs. Pause pipi; no one even tries to sell me Ecstasy or similar. It’s the best classical rave I could have hoped for. No one tries to dance with me when I’m sleeping. And who needs glow-sticks when we’re just waiting on the Parisian sunrise refracted through a giant glass pyramid? Chilled trance prevails.

04:58 I hear dozens of white Stan Smith Adidas sneakers slapping marble and am persuaded to open my eyes. What brought on this sudden deck-chair exodus? As it turns out, the duo are brandishing the white toilet brushes that have become quite the party trick in Frahm’s live shows. The crowd knows what this means. Arnalds and Frahm proceed to strike and scrub the strings of the grand piano, their shadows writ large on the walls.

05:23 A chord change provokes wild applause for some reason.

05:26 Even in the most repetitive material, as in Hammers, Frahms varies his pianistic touch from staccato jazz attack to gentle caress without losing steam; his face is contorted with concentration as he sings along. A fresh towel materialises.

05:40
‘Hopefully we’ve laid out calculations correctly for our idea to play with the sunrise in Paris,’ Arnalds announces as the first light grey strains of encroaching morning goad the musicians on for the final sprint.
05:51
An abrasive drone oscillating between F and F-sharp builds to a roar; delicate organ chords creep in with the first rays of light. Even the groggiest struggle to our feet for a standing ovation/sun salutation. Staff promptly inform us that breakfast is served – for those who reserved and paid extra. We shuffle out and rug up against the chill morning air of the deserted square courtyard. I hardly spoke to anyone the whole night but somehow feel I became friends with them all through the power of shared experience and the clear musical rapport and close friendship between the two soloists – not for nothing have they released a film entitled Trance Frendz documenting their prolific collaboration. (I would have called it TechnoBromance, maybe volume 2?)
I calculated a maximum of two hours and fifty minutes’ uninterrupted shut-eye before a yoga class I would almost certainly fall asleep in. Guess whose music I played as soon as I got home to help me nod off?
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Was David Bowie haunted by the ghost of Chopin?

Bowie

Derelict for years, the 18th-century French chateau where the maverick rocker recorded two of his albums may yet relive its glory days.

“David Bowie est un fantôme.” These were the words that opened the solemn voiceover of a documentary aired on FranceTV last Wednesday 6 January, eerily, just days before the shock announcement of his death. The programme, titled Bowie, l’Homme Cent Visages ou Le Fantome d’Hérouville (The Man with 100 Faces or The Ghost of Hérouville), explores a curious idyll in his prolific recording career, two stints in a sprawling manor or ‘gentilhommière’ in the French village of Hérouville, 45km outside of Paris.

The composer Michel Magne purchased the Château d’Hérouville in 1962, and transformed it into one of the first, pioneering residential recording spaces, known as Strawberry Studios.

The rooms that once received Chopin and George Sand on their romantic trysts began to resonate with a different kind of sound; the walls shook as straggly-haired musicians from the likes of Pink Floyd, Iggy Pop, Grateful Dead and Jethro Tull flocked to the French countryside to take advantage of the seclusion and bohemian ambiance. Elton John even named his 1972 album Honky Château after the place in which it was recorded.

Bowie recorded his Pin Ups cover album there in 1973 (sampling Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in the song ‘See Emily Play’). He returned, a recovering cocaine addict, in 1976 for Low – the first in the Berlin trilogy was in fact recorded in France – a masterpiece and his most avant-garde album up until that point.

In the documentary, Dominique Blanc-Francard, a sound engineer working on the 1973 sessions, recalls: “When he looked you in the eyes it was like he was piercing you with lasers, it felt as though someone was rummaging around in your thoughts…Out of all the clients we had at the chateau, he was the coolest. For that time, he had such a bizarre look, really like an alien. One couldn’t imagine him being human.”

Bowie is said to have complained about the diet of rabbit and potatoes during his sojourn. Far more troubling, according to his collaborators on Low (Brian Eno and Tony Visconti), were visitations by a ghost, and a bedroom Bowie refused to sleep in, believing it was haunted.

Strawberry Studios closed its doors in 1985, a year after Michel Magne’s suicide. The chateau remained derelict for almost three decades, eventually put up for sale in 2013 with an asking price of €1.29m (£1.12m) and some serious renovations to be done. Happily, a group of sound engineers has since taken up the challenge of restoring the honky chateau to its former glory, and are seeking investors: it is tipped to reopen in 2016.

The piano used by Elton John on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road has been tucked away in the attic for decades. If Chopin’s ghost is lurking around, he must be pleased.

Paris: the end-of-year best- & worst-of list

382565_10151509597246762_114160831_n Here are some things I’ve got up to in France since I arrived last year, in no particular order. Bonne année, happy new year etc.

I broke the mirror in my new apartment the day I arrived in Paris.

I’ve bought designer children’s socks – for me – at a chic left-bank boutique.

I’ve sunbathed topless on a deck-chair in the garden of the Musée Bourdelle while waiting for my clothes to dry at the laundromat.

I’ve had my hair cut standing upright in the street at Porte-de-Clignancourt in the company of two goats.

I’ve stomped grapes accompanied by ritual flute music in a medieval winery in Bourgogne.

I’ve been asked by a perfect stranger to star in a play, to be premiered at a theatre in Abbesses, called Nietzsche’s Pizzas (the sequel to Aristotle’s Bottles).

I provided the skull used in Shakespeare & Co’s shortened version of Hamlet performed for the Bard’s 400th birthday, but didn’t watch the performance because I knew it would be shit.

I’ve crawled through corridors lined with human femurs in the illegal catacombs.

I’ve been the only astronaut at a Great Gatsby-themed party.

I’ve been the only astronaut at a belly-button themed party.

I’ve fallen down a waterfall while kayaking because I was distracted by three Belgians who were singing in the boat behind me and who subsequently retrieved my capsized canoe. 1234984_10151646845586762_158617309_n

I lost my favourite opera binoculars at the Théâtre de Trianon.

I once had to say to someone, ‘N’oublie pas ton fouet.’

I received the sexiest SMS of my life: ‘Tu crois au Père Noël?:)’

I’ve had my heart casually broken via SMS at the airport.

I had my second-worst bike accident outside a lesbian bar where 20 women rushed out to help me, one of whom, Carole, worked for the Red Cross, paid for my taxi home and checked the next day that I wasn’t concussed.

I’ve been lost after sundown in the Ardèche with no map, telephone or torch, and had to knock on an elderly farmer’s door to be returned to my lodgings.

I promised the above savior a postcard from my next adventure and still haven’t sent it.

I wrote a love postcard to my extremely talented stride jazz-playing pianist neighbour and slipped it under his door after listening for many hours without having ever seen him, or knowing ‘he’ was a ‘him’.

I have received my first book of tickets resto after longing for them for months, and spent most of them at Marks & Spencer on Boulevard St-Michel and the one bakery I know that gives change back.

I’ve had my fortune told by a French clairvoyant and secretly recorded her findings.

I had a really interesting conversation with the girl who did my bikini wax at Yves Rocher.

I’ve stopped telling French people that white bread is bad for them.

I’ve been through a chestnut phase.

I’ve lied about my age to get into several exhibitions for free.

I’ve passed from the period where people guessed I was five years younger than I actually was, to the period where they usually correctly guess my age.

I’ve sung ‘Douce Nuit’ at the Madeleine on Christmas eve.

I’ve sung ‘Purple Rain’ with Connan Mockasin at 3am.

I’ve climbed my favourite tree in Paris.

1001132_10151509179291762_1137625320_n I’ve dumpster-dived for the last cherries of the season.

I’ve accepted a non-sleazy shoulder massage from a pirate who goes by the name Rouge.

I’ve been bitten by a French poodle that drew blood, and I now have to start my morning runs a half-hour later to avoid the same dog.

I’ve said ‘tel chien, tel maître’ about 600 times.

I ruined my recorded time in the 16km Paris-Versailles race by stopping to take photos of the accordion bands along the track.

I’ve babysat for a divorcée who works at Hermès and whose 10-year-old daughter told me regularly that my clothes were ugly.

I’ve run with the firemen up the stairs of Montmartre and high-fived them during laps of the Jardin du Luxembourg.

I was seated by chance next to an Australian metal band called I Killed the Prom Queen at a vegan restaurant in Paris, where the heavily-tattooed members ordered only desserts.

I’ve told a flic trying to issue me a fine that I didn’t want to go anywhere with him because I’d just read about a Canadian tourist being gang-raped by Paris police officers.

In a separate incident, I’ve been fingerprinted and had a panic attack at Gare du Nord.

I auditioned for the Musiciens du Métro.

I told someone to go fuck their trombone (for personal, not musical, reasons).

I compared tats with Johnny Marr.

I’ve been on John Zorn’s personal guest list.

I’ve translated for sad clowns on Rue Quincompoix.

I lost my glasses at the tomb of Serge Gainsbourg and amazingly they were still there and intact when I went to retrieve them after an overnight storm.

992827_10151535968446762_1831523456_n I downed my first glass of rikiki, and then downed some more.

I tried celery-flavoured sorbet.

I’ve shown up at the Palais de Tokyo for an evening of experimental electro with Jean-Michel Jarre, and crashed instead, for three hours without realising, the Crédit Agricole Christmas party held concurrently in the same venue.

I’ve rang my bicycle bell for pigeons on the cycleway at Barbès.

I’ve intentionally almost mowed down lovers kissing on the bike path at Boulevard Magenta.

I’ve blown a kiss at the guy on a unicycle ahead of me.

I’ve rode past my ex’s house at 2am and had a way more handsome drunken French guy give me a rose without asking for anything in return.

I’ve cried because I made my bath too hot and had to hover over it waiting to enter, shivering, with water dripping down my ankles.

I cried after witnessing a scooter accident at Concorde.

I’ve cried in front of the Odilon Redon paintings at the Musée d’Orsay.

I won a round of darts at a bar in Batignolles by hitting the ‘1’ on first attempt.

I’ve woken up every day feeling lucky to be in Paris. 10700358_10152370577686762_777395378295289221_o

Einstein beached on the Paris Plage

PHOf61d8cc4-7851-11e3-be87-e16971b4b8a2-805x453It’s generally considered a faux pas for concertgoers to fall asleep mid-performance. Certainly most composers would be offended to catch you napping as their opera plays out on stage. But most composers aren’t Philip Glass.

Even he could be forgiven for losing track of time in his marathon 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach, which received its premiere in France at the Avignon Festival. “We didn’t even actually know how long it was,” the world’s most imitated living composer thinks back to the first performance 37 years ago. “The first night, it turned out to be about five hours!”

But when I nervously joke that he could have faded out at the 180-minute mark, he retorts that “the point of writing music and experiencing music isn’t to make people comfortable necessarily.” That said, audiences are permitted to zone out, nod off or take a breather outside as part of this immersive theatrical odyssey, which just finished its six-day run at the Théâtre du Châtelet for the Festival d’Automne, reminding Parisians that the doyen of American minimalism had what he describes as a “formation française” here under the strict tutelage of Nadia Boulanger.

In four-and-a-half hours, then — give or take — this iconic opera unfolds in hypnotic sensory overload. Rarely performed because of its length and the resources required, Einstein on the Beach was staged in Paris in the revival of Robert Wilson’s original blazing production. (The legendary director’s body of work was a linchpin of this year’s Festival d’Automne à Paris.) “The thing that brought us together,” says Glass of his collaborator and fellow iconoclast, “Bob,” “is that we experienced time, space and movement in a very similar way.”

Just don’t go expecting anything as conventional as a plot. One wonders what would happen if Einstein’s theory of relativity were applied to Glass’ and Wilson’s behemoth. The chorus intones endless strings of numbers; amplified instruments pulse with nervous energy; as the music hurtles through time, Lucinda Childs’ freeze-frame choreography creates the sensation that time might stop altogether. Einstein himself appears onstage as an amateur violinist sporting a curly grey-haired wig and cardigan, sometimes portrayed by a woman.

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But how does this extended meditation on life, the universe and everything fit in with the operatic tradition? “That’s a good question, and I’ll give you the truthful answer,” Glass explains: “We had no idea it was an opera!

“You could call the piece anything you wanted to, but the only place we could perform it was an opera house. People began to talk about it as an opera. It was a discovery for us as it was for everybody else.”

Glass did eventually turn to more traditional forms, including an opera about Ghandi, Satyagraha, in 1980, but “the people who liked Einstein were upset because they thought it was going to sound like Einstein. I disappointed them with Einstein and then I disappointed them again!” he chortles.

The most disappointed witnesses to the notorious 1976 premiere were “some older people who were really unhappy,” Glass recalls. “That’s a normal state of affairs. The younger people embrace it; the older people are kind of terrified that this was even allowed into a theatre.”

At 76, he’s now reached the age of those elderly complainants, observing how the work has evolved in the public consciousness. “It had a big effect, but the funny thing is that the reactions of the audiences today are not that different. And partly that’s because the rest of the world of opera didn’t change very much. People thought this was going to change the world. Well, it didn’t.

“The demands of the piece, I can see now, must have been very great on the players, on the performers, and on the audience. It must have been like crossing a bridge through a country that is unknown. We didn’t know where the piece was going – we were too much a part of it.”

No longer part of it as a performer, Glass finally has the luxury of relaxing and watching – if one can call it a luxury. “I was in the orchestra pit playing the piece every night. I never sat in the audience and looked at it. That happened to me very recently.

“And you know what? I really liked it!”

But try as I might, I can’t get him to admit to falling asleep.

Readers in Paris can watch the entire performance filmed live at the Théâtre du Châtelet

 

Einstein on the beach au Théâtre du Châtelet

Liberté, Égalité, Soeurité: Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées

des_carmelites_jansenistes_1There is a wonderful moment in Olivier Py’s new production of Dialogues des Carmélites that sums up the composer Poulenc’s approach to music — and to life. While the stern young Sister Blanche scrubs the floors of the convent, her more carefree yet equally pious companion Sister Constance blows bubbles from a bucket of soapy water. Francis Poulenc, an openly gay yet deeply spiritual man who returned to Catholicism in his thirties after the traumatic death of a friend, was once described as moitié moine, moitié voyou (half monk, half rascal) and you get glimpses of this duality in his later vocal music: austere harmonies grounded in medieval chant, enveloped in lush orchestral sound and leavened by pungent, playful details.

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées marks the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death (overshadowed outside of France by the bicentenaries of Verdi and Wagner) with this stark yet elegant production of his second opera, which recounts the tragic history of the Compiègne nuns executed in 1794 as enemies of the French Revolution. Far from an obvious choice for a libretto, it lacks romantic interest and consists of long, sombre meditations on matters metaphysical. But its sense of encroaching doom, the conquering of fear and the acceptance of fate are universal themes, treated at times with unexpected, whimsical tenderness, as when the novices wonder if their Mother Superior was accidentally dealt too painful a death for someone who had served God so faithfully, like someone being handed back the wrong coat from the cloakroom.

Poulenc created the role of the high-born Sister Blanche for regal soprano Denise Duval, but would have been thrilled with the current French line-up, with the swooping, ethereal tones of Patricia Petibon’s volatile Blanche, Véronique Gens’s steadfast, velvety mezzo as the new prioress, the agonised death throes of Rosalind Plowright’s Mother Superior; although an indisposed Sandrine Piau’s Sister Constance was taken over by Anne-Catherine Gillet, I didn’t feel at all short-changed by the latter’s sparkling soubrettish tone, which provided much-needed lightness.

DeathThe interplay between light and dark guides Pierre-André Weitz’s bold, stylised staging, in which the nuns use simple props, during Poulenc’s musical interludes, to enact striking religious tableaux including The Last Supper. In the powerful, tour-de-force death scene of Act Two, Madame de Croissy’s bed is suspended vertically against the wall, casting sharp shadows, so that we see her suffering writ large like a crucifixion. And in the final scene, the fifteen singing nuns, clad in crisp white, stride single-file to their deaths — the unison voices cut off one by one by the chilling slice and thud of a guillotine in the orchestra pit — against a black backdrop illuminated by stars.

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées celebrates its centenary this year alongside the Poulenc anniversary, and has mounted an exhibition in the opulent art deco foyer of Poulenc’s association with the venue, from his days as an enfant terrible in the group of French composers known as Les Six. The selection includes posters from their 1920s concerts, Poulenc’s contract for the commission of Dialogue des Carmélites, a manuscript of the work with music that never made the final cut, and the last known photo of the composer.

Poulenc said of his 1956 opera, “You must forgive my Carmelites. It seems they can only sing tonal music.” One can imagine him unburdening himself thus at the confessional booth, with a glint in his eye.

Alter Egos at the Trianon: Yaron Herman, Festival d’Île de France

When I met Paris-based Israeli pianist Yaron Herman in July last year, he played me snippets of Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated on an iPad keyboard app as we waited for our entrées, all the while waxing lyrical about Curb Your Enthusiasm. This is a mec who wears his eclectic tastes on his sleeve, then rolls up his sleeves to reveal his own blend of virtuosic yet laid-back jazz. His sixth album astonishing given he took up the instrument at 16 and is still on the baby-faced end of his thirties — was just about to come out. I went back to Australia and forgot all about it: cultural amnesia.

le-trianon-parisBack in France almost exactly a year later, that same disc Alter Ego happened to top the pile of CDs discovered in my sublet, so that Herman unknowingly provided the fanfare the day I unpacked my life in Paris. And last weekend it all came full circle seeing him play live at Le Trianon, the recently reopened Montmartre theatre once frequented by Picasso, its elegant white façade a beacon in a sea of sex shops and seedy crêperies.

It was a fitting close to the month-long Festival d’Île de France, which borrowed from Herman the name Alter Ego (or seized on happy coincidence) to express its far-roaming spirit of musiques en partage: undreamed-of encounters from Corsican polyphony to readings of Van Gogh’s letters accompanied by Japanese shamisen, spread across 26 venues in Paris and beyond.

With his jazz arrangements of Björk and Britney, Herman made, literally, the perfect poster boy for the festival, along with his three bandmates and three guests dropping in to lend a touch of classical, pop and electronica flair to proceedings.

Yaron-Herman-3_credit-JulienMignotThe core quartet was energetic but focused; Herman and soprano sax wizard Emile Parisien all elbows as they unfurled the angular, Eastern-tinged unison of La Confusion Sexuelle Des Papillons. At more reflective moments, such as his nod to Israeli roots in the sombre Hatikva, the pianist placed every lyrical note with care, allowing the instrument to resonate and sing. Solos from double bassist Florent Nisse and Ziv Ravitz on kit showcased a rhythm section as engaged and imaginative as Herman could have hoped for; my eyes were often drawn to the drummer’s corner by his fluid movements and constant cool-cat grin.

For the most part, Herman’s invitees kept the group in good company. He hurtled into a Faustian four-hands duel with his classical alter ego Bertrand Chamayou (the same age and almost exactly the same height). Led Zeppelin’s No Quarter as Liszt and Chick Corea might like to hear it: the playful crowd-pleaser of the night as the two pianists scuttled around each other in a game of cat and mouse, one proving that some classical virtuosos can not only improvise but even manage to seem cool doing it; the other that certain jazzheads don’t lack the chops of their classical counterparts.

Most of the audience would have known Valgeir Sigurdsson by sound, if not by name. The Icelandic producer who has collaborated with the likes of Björk and Camille may be a pioneer of electronic music, but the beats and samples he brought to the party at the Trianon were the sort he’s been serving up from behind his laptop for the past decade. Still, the resulting atmosphere of dark, ethereal beauty drew a sensitive response from the band, Herman reaching into the Steinway to pluck and dampen strings, tinkling away at a row of colourful toy bells lined up along the piano and pinging off Sigurdsson’s bubbling concoction with subtle, staccato touch.

Pop chanteuse Fredrika Stahl’s two songs were less inspired moments in the program, serving only to highlight the facility and flair with which Herman adapted to her cover of Sugar Man; the statuesque Suede may have towered over her backing band in heels, but they all dwarfed her musically.

My favourite moment: the languid, brooding arrangement of Nirvana’s Heart-Shaped Box, Herman appropriately shirted in plaid.

Watch the entire concert here.