Bob Hughes on Pianist Andrew Staupe’s Parisian Recital

SOMETIMES SPUR-OF-THE-MOMENT decisions lead to delightful surprises.

That happened to me last night, as I strolled the 17th arrondissement of Paris, near where I live when I’m here.

I was walking by the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris, on the corner of Boulevard Malsherbes and Rue Cardinet, and saw a poster for a concert that evening at the conservatory’s Salle Cortot (named after the school’s co-founder, pianist Alfred Cortot). I had arrived just two days before – I am lucky enough to spend a few months a year in France – and was walking around to fend off jet lag and fighting the urge to sleep by strolling about, admiring the cozy architecture of this comfortable neighborhood.

The program was a piano recital, given as part of an international musicians’ exchange organization called Pro Musicis, which awards prizes for musical excellence (among former winners is singer Nathalie Dessay). Last night, there was a recital by the American pianist Andrew Staupe, who had won the Laureat du Prix International Pro Musicis USA 2011.

The cost was 20 euros – a relative bargain at around $27 – and the concert consisted of works by Bach, Mozart, the « Group des Six » (G. Auric, L. Durey, A. Honegger, F. Poulence, D. Milhaud and G. Tailleferre) and Chopin. I decided to take a chance.

I’m glad I did.

Paris, like many big cities, has its share of music schools and conservatories with reasonably priced concerts. But here, as in other metropolises with an abundance of cultural riches, people tend to ignore the treasures in their backyards. I’ve been guilty of that myself, and though I had long thought of attending a concert here at Salle Cortot the dates never quite aligned with my stay. Until yesterday.

The Salle Cortot is an ideal chamber-music and recital space, seating about 350-400 people, with excellent sight lines of the small semicircular stage. You’re never far from the musicians. The seating was open. I found a single seat perched just behind the last row of the orchestra. The last row of the center section was seven rows back, so you get the idea of the intimacy of the room.

To my surprise (or naïveté), many of the well-dressed audience knew each other; there’s a membership for the concerts, which run about once a month during the playing season. It had a familial feeling, much as one gets at New York Festival of Song concerts in Manhattan, where the bulk of the audience is made up of long-time subscribers, and the atmosphere is genial and welcoming.

A gentleman of a certain age, who didn’t give his name but who was, I assumed, associated with the organization, introduced the concert with great charm. He gave a précis – humorous, insightful – of each of the pieces to begin with, and without fanfare, the young pianist came on stage and began.

Staupe is wonderfully light-fingered and at the same time forceful. He was ruminative on the Bach – the Fantasy and Fugue in A minor, BWV 904 – and his superb sense of classical proportion would have delighted the late Charles Rosen on the Mozart sonata, K. 576 in D major.

I’m glad Staupe chose – perhaps in keeping with the Parisian setting – a selection of works from the Group of Six, those French composers who got together toward the end of World War I and whose music they claimed was in protest of the compositions, and compositional styles, of Wagner, Debussy and Ravel. Their intentions might have been one thing, but the music I heard had echoes of both Debussy and Ravel – shimmering, silvery, lovely and fleeting. Staupe performed the works with French élan and poise.

Following the brief entr’acte, the distinguished gentleman introduced the Chopin. Staupe then entered and played the Scherzo No. 4 in E major, Op. 54; the Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72, no. 1, the Barcarolle, Op. 60, the Berceuse (or lullaby) Op. 57, and closed with the Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor, Op. 39.

He’s an exceptional Chopin performer – he makes it seem as if the Chopin were easy to play (which any pianist knows is not usually the case), and he also makes what he plays emotional without sentimentality.

For the encore, Staupe gave us Schubert’s Hungarian Melody, another lesson in powerful restraint.

It was so gratifying to fall upon a co unfussy, a performance space so unassuming, a pianist so gifted and modest, along with an audience so present yet free, it appeared to me, of the shushing snobbery of so many classical-music crowds.

I left the hall under the pearly glow of a late gibbous moon high over Paris, with a gleaming Jupiter on the fringe of the lunar halo, grateful for many things – Paris, music, a clear winter sky – but most of all, perhaps, for having taken a chance and won.

Bob Hughes is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, who specialized in cultural coverage, and is a novelist (Late and Soon) and playwright (Sight Lines). He works as a writer on a variety of projects, and lives between New York and Paris.

For a video interview with pianist Andrew Staupe, go here.

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