Yundi Li in concert tonight! At last I’ve had the chance to catch the pianist on stage – thanks to my long time friend Vanessa. He was to give a recital at the Salle Pleyel.
“Remember, An, it’s the Salle Pleyel. Not the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées!!!” she added with a smile when we called each other to confirm our appointment.
The previous time Vanessa and I were to meet at the Salle Pleyel was a few years ago when I got two invitations for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Orchestre d’Île de France. They had performed my father’s music many times so it was natural he be one of the guests for the event. Since he could not go, I inherited the tickets. The program included works by Sibelius and a few other contemporary Scandinavian composers and was to be conducted by Jacques Mercier. That is, that was the concert we were supposed to see but which I didn’t see for I saw something else instead, unaware of the fact until nearly the end.
We had set an appointment twenty minutes before the concert. The week had been filled with shows, opera and concerts and I joyously immersed myself in it.
I arrived early at the venue and waited for Vanessa. When the bells rang to signify the beginning of the concert, there was still no sign of her. I left her a message on her answering machine, left a ticket for her at the desk and went inside. The ushers showed me my seat; it was fairly close to the stage, on the right side. How splendid to get invitation and be treated with the best seats! “I wish Vanessa makes it on time. She might show up any minute”. But she didn’t.
An elderly woman spotted the empty seat next to me and tentatively asked whether it was free, but I had to send her away. I desperately looked around me, hoping to catch the sight of her.
Then I noticed the red seats. Red seats? I had the vague memory that the seats were blue at the Salle Pleyel… I didn’t push the thought any further and sat quiet.
It was too late for her to see the beginning of the concert anyway. The conductor entered the stage. I was in shock. “Jacques Mercier looks so old!” I thought. The last time I had seen him was ten years before and he still had dark hair and seemed to be in his forties only. Now all his hair had turned white and he seemed to have aged thirty years. The change was dramatic!
Then the concert started. The music I heard didn’t sound at all like Sibelius. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any program so I had no clue what exactly would be performed that night.
However, I was amazed by the sound the orchestra produced. The Orchestre d’Île de France is a fairly good orchestra, but I had never been really impressed by them. This time, I was amazed by the rich colours and textures I heard and by the remarkable precision of the conductor. “The metamorphosis Jacques Mercier underwent as a conductor is startling! Very much like Pierre Boulez!!!” I mused.
At the intermission, I looked for Vanessa. Left her a second message on her answering machine. “How strange that she wouldn’t come…” I worried that something happened to her.
I killed time looking at posters promoting forthcoming concerts. Barbara Hendricks at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées…
“I would never go to see her.” I exclaimed.
Then it struck me. “How odd that they had to advertise for the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées at the Salle Pleyel!!!”
I immediately found the answer: of course, the Théâtre des Champs-Elysée must be in renovation at the moment, so they’re using the Salle Pleyel for some of the concerts. How totally impossible such a thing was didn’t dawn on me. I had found the explanation and was happy with it, however twister and illogical it may be. I caught a glimpse at the program book. Indeed they had completely changed their program for the evening. How odd, how odd!!!
The second part of the concert was fabulous. Once again, I marvelled at the performance. What a shame Vanessa wasn’t there to witness that!!!
In the lobby of the theatre, I saw my music journalist friend Rémi who was surprised to see me.
“So you managed to get ticket for this concert??? he said. “That was quite a concert, wasn’t it?!”
We walked out to street as we were chatting. Rémi was in big talk with some of his friends, certainly exchanging their impressions of the concert. I called Vanessa to find out what had happened to her. Answering machine again. Then I lifted up my head and saw it: THEATRE DES CHAMPS ELYSEES.
“Waaaaa Rémi, I am at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées!!!!” Rémi looked at me with amusement. Of course, I was. He couldn’t have understood what I really meant, how I had been able to delude myself into believing I was at the Salle Pleyel in spite of all the signs shouting out the contrary. But how I found myself mistaking the two venues is still a mystery. How I got through the ticket control is easier to explain: no one could have imagined that I wasn’t actually attending the right concert! Then I learned that I had just had the extreme privilege to hear Pierre Boulez conducting the Vienna Philharmonic for a concert that was quite the event of the season! No one could have plotted it better if he wanted to!
So what had Vanessa done all that time? She later told me that she had been waiting for me at the Salle Pleyel indeed. When the bells rang, she asked the control desk whether they didn’t have any ticket under my name or hers. There was one, but not at the right theatre! Seeing that she was sincere and not trying some obvious trick to get in, they eventually gave her a ticket – a good one, she said.
Rémi wouldn’t believe me. No one would have dared such an implausible plot. There must be some lucky star above me!
Yundi Li gave us a marvellous concert tonight. Vanessa and I were amazed by his skills and sense of phrasing. This young man could do anything and do it with extreme sensitivity and brio. We were speechless. He approached these über-famous pieces (Chopin’s waltzes, his Andante Spianato & Polonaise, Mussorgsky’s Pictures of an Exhibition, which he played instead of the works by Liszt as advertised on the program, a welcome last minute change!) in a fresh, unusual and unexpected way, making great use of timber, sound and harmonic textures. Li is going to grow into a wonderful world-class musician – which he already is.
The audience responded politely to his performance. It seems people nowadays look for big names or big chills. I over heard a snobbish middle-aged man who made clear his comments were heard by everyone in the lobby, claiming he found no musicality in Li’s playing, that he understood why Chinese people like him: because he was sweating as much as French rock singer Johnny Hallyday… Vanessa and I could only sigh at the stupidity of the remark!