Music is universal. Culture is local. In France I realized that even those of us who’d considered ourselves fairly worldly actually had little idea of the world outside of our own cultural spheres.
You can’t know everything, of course. Part of the wonder in living abroad for me has been discovering elements of culture that haven’t made it past certain borders, or of finding performers on the cusp of a career. We still tend – or at least I do, sometimes – to think that what we know is best, because that’s what we know. What I began to grasp was that not only was I uninformed about the wider cultural world, I would never become as informed as I wanted to be. That didn’t mean I would stop trying to know more; I wasn’t abroad, after all, to think as I had before. But to begin with, I needed to lay aside preconceptions.
Like many an individual who’d only lived in one place all his life, I expected certain aspects of Paris to be the same as the city where I’d grown up. I thought that, like New York, Paris would be a wonderful place to soak up classical music – based on a vague sense of European cultural supremacy. What I learned was that while Paris is a world-class city, it’s no longer a regular stop on the main classical-music circuit (unlike London or Berlin). I found fewer big-name singers, pianists and orchestras in Paris than I’d expected. But I heard, and continue to hear, a lot of wonderful music regardless.
Among the more memorable concerts I attended was one at Saint-Ephrem-le-Syriaque de Paris, a tiny church in the 5th arrondissement, near the Pantheon and the Sorbonne.
It’s a tiny medieval structure – it could be a side chapel in a larger house of workshop – and it’s recessed into a streetscape that seems to have grown up around it. But the size of Saint-Ephrem works well for recitals, since the sound doesn’t get lost, and performers are close to the audience.
A church has been on this site since the 14th century. This particular structure, built on the tired bones of older ones, dates back to 1733, and bears the marks of its various ages – gray chipped stone walls dusty with ash, dingy Baroque columns flanking the altar, art in need of restoration. Saint-Ephrem offers liturgies under the Syriac Orthodox Church, and you can see instruments of its services amid the faded trappings of western Catholic rites.
For this concert, I took my place on one of the barely padded wicker church seats. It’s was if we were all seated in an ecclesiastical waiting room. A grand piano was placed before the altar, barely 10 feet from the first row, before an enameled wall of black arches.
The man who sold the tickets at the door lighted candles on either side of the altar space just before the performance began. A waning daylight drifted through the windows and, as the concert progressed and the night grew deeper, the interior glowed from the candelabras within, casting a soft evening shine onto everyone and drawing us into the past.
This concert featured a young pianist, Stefan Chaplikov, who’d studied at Paris’s Conservatoire National Supérieur. He performed etudes by Chopin, Liszt, Scriabin and Debussy, a set of variations by the late-Romantic Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, a Beethoven sonata and, for an encore – which I remember since shortly before I’d left for France I’d heard Lang Lang play the same piece at the New York Philharmonic – Franz Liszt’s show-stopping “Reminiscences du Don Juan.”
It was a thrill to be so near the musician, to take in a performance in so intimate a setting, and to be one of perhaps 50 people hearing a gifted pianist play just for us.
And as my eye sometimes wandered in the romantic gloom that descended during the music, I could discern traces of French frugality: On the floor near the piano were listless flowers left over from Sunday services, and on either side of the altar, lingering from Christmas five months earlier, stood three or four pots of barely surviving poinsettias – a few tenacious red leaves clinging to stubborn, denuded branches.
I attended other concerts at Saint-Ephrem during my first few months in Paris – including a sublime recital of Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello – driven by a desire to hear other excellent young musicians who were as-yet unknown to the wider world. And also to see if those wilting poinsettias would still be there through the end of spring.