ARTS / Cries & Whispers

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The Independent Culture
CONTRARY to the information given on these pages last week, I have not been unwell, but living it up in gay Paree. I'd been invited to an orchestral concert at the Salle Pleyel, a 4,000-seater which forms part of a three-hall classical music complex not unlike our own, much-maligned South Bank Centre.

Here, I thought, was a chance to compare and contrast, with little doubt that French style and savoir-faire would come out on top.

I'd left plenty of time to find the place - luckily, it turned out, as my fat Plan de Paris par arrondissement gave scant guidance as to the halls' whereabouts. I ended up getting off the Metro at the wrong end of the Rue du Faubourg St Honore, a good half-hour's walk away. As I trudged on, begging directions (no signs), I noted hungrily how the restaurants and bars petered out the nearer I got. Luckily, French concerts never start before 8.30pm, often at 9. (So much more civilised.) Still, no time even to buy a drink - just grab the tickets and find the seats. I was interested to note the standard prices for important concerts: 120F (pounds 15) to 370F (pounds 46) for a recent Alfred Brendel recital - the same recital at the RFH cost from pounds 6 to pounds 25. So that scuppers the idea we have of the French massively subsidising the arts.

Inside, the Salle Pleyel is all blond wood walls with the statutory outcrop of fungal black lumps halfway back where they'd decided the original acousticians had got it wrong and tried to improve the sound. Pleyel himself was a piano-maker of Chopin's time whose instruments are still sought after.

I was musing on what he would have made of it when I was accosted by a smart, mauve-rinsed lady of un certain age who snatched my tickets and tore them in two. Expecting to be shown to my seat, I waited. The usherette had turned her back, rather pointedly I thought, and was attending to someone else. My companion jabbed me in the ribs and thrust four francs into my palm. Ah, a tip] She was expecting a tip. From her wrist hung a velvet drawstring evening bag, bulging with coins. All the usherettes had them.

Imagine. On a good night with, say, 2,000 tipping punters, you could make a fortune.

The concert began: a young orchestra with a large proportion of women players and a unisex waiters' uniform of black cropped jacket and trews.

Sartorial gravitas: nul points. The conductor appeared. He was Frederic Lodeon, a retired cellist, and, I was told, presenter of two popular music programmes on radio and TV. To judge by what followed these must be something of a cross between My Music and Jeux Sans Frontieres. He leapt onto the podium, snatched up a lollipop microphone, and launched into a horribly smooth spiel on the Saint-Saens cello concerto. I didn't catch every nuance, but he referred to the work as 'that old warhorse' (cheval de bataille) and ended by entreating us to 'give a very warm welcome' to the cellist, who was 'going to need all the energy she could muster'. Sacre bleu. Give me dull old programme notes any day.

The odious Lodeon gave the same treatment to the next work: a Mozart piano concerto, with cadenzas improvised freely by the soloist, an interesting Israeli pianist who makes a speciality of such things. It's what Mozart expected in his own day, but the revived practice is considered in some circles as cavalier (It's not written] Stick to the script]). Those circles were out in force at the Salle Pleyel. Every time the pianist launched into unknown territory, there was audible muttering. A couple sitting near me conversed in urgent stage whispers throughout.

During the interval I found the snack bar. Plat du jour: limp Mother's Pride-type sandwiches with lurid pink macaroons at 20F a bite. Royal Festival Hall, je t'adore.