What’s the question, you may ask.
But it’s not that there is an answer (a noun). It’s a verb in that headline. Swimmers swim, runners run, and for a period of time, I believe the French answered.
It’s how I came to the opening concert of Toronto Summer Music (aka “TSM”), a festival themed around “La Belle Epoque”. Tonight we heard a brief but passionate introductory talk from TSM’s Artistic Director Douglas McNabney, including exciting previews of the innovative ideas TSM have added this year, such as “shuffle” concerts arbitrarily combining pieces the way a smart-phone might, and a special TSM app you can download. Mainly we heard him explain the importance of this period.
La Belle Epoque is many things, but for me it is chiefly a time of conversations, discourse and counter-discourse, argument and rebuttal. For Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy their music was often reticent, and clearly influenced profoundly by the ghost of old Klingsor, as Debussy ironically called Wagner and his inescapable influence upon everyone who followed. How could it be otherwise, when Wagner seemed to re-invent opera and culture at the end of the 19th Century?
And so the first stream of answering concerns German music & Wagner. Fauré, Debussy (not programmed in the concert but still an important influence) and Ravel do many things, but often they seem to be presenting a counter-argument, an alternative pathway for music & culture.
If one considers the various “isms” –some listed by McNabney in his introductory talk—one sees an ongoing conversation about the nature of art & music. Onstage Naturalists were answered by Symbolists. On the canvas, impressionists (a word that’s a misnomer applied to music: but who am I to argue with millions of people?) were answered by cloisonists (who could also be called symbolists, depending on who you follow / believe) and post-impressionists. Later we have several more –isms, often in a kind of reaction against what came before. For a time, “answering” was the French national gift to the world, an innovation soon to be exported (and imitated) all over Europe.
The concert by Trio Pennetier Pasquier Pidoux is itself a kind of answer, a breath of fresh air (especially with my ears, that had been filled with Wagner earlier today). The playing exploited the wonderful acoustic of Koerner Hall and an attentive audience who, while they may have applauded each movement of the opening Trio from Gabriel Fauré, sat very quietly throughout.
This trio has a remarkable chemistry. If I don’t miss my guess, cellist Roland Pidoux is the leader, considering both the dynamics of the performances and the body language of the trio. It was Pidoux who announced the encore, a delicate gossamer soft reading of the finale of Beethoven’s opening trio: in other words another subtle answer to the loud weighty question—a question uttered in German—that lurked in the psyche of French musicians of that era.
Pidoux plays like the alpha male of the group, his cello sound extraordinarily powerful for an ensemble such as this, with a penetrating & passionate tone. Violinist Régis Pasquier, in contrast, is all about the blend, leaning his body & his instrument in towards the rock-solid Pidoux throughout, beginning each work perhaps a bit quieter than one might expect, but building to powerful climaxes. Jean-Claude Pennetier was upstage but never upstaged at the piano, and to me was the most impressive of the three (but then again I’m a pianist, and probably prejudiced). Like Pasquier, Pennetier was often self-effacing, and produced a wonderfully consistent flow of notes in the challenging Ravel Trio, often without rising above pianissimo. In the final work of the program –Rachmaninoff’s Trio élégiaque—Pennetier played enough notes for a piano concerto, yet with a wonderful restraint in all but a few passages.