A few weeks ago, researching musical activities in Paris, I came across the ProQuartet website. It looked like just the thing I was after: ‘enhanc(ing) the recognition of chamber music and string quartet practice’. As well as playing opportunities, there was ‘La nuit du quatuor‘ coming up – 11 hours of string quartets performing through the night, for free, at the Musée de l’Orangerie, to a backdrop of Monet’s waterlilies. Ça c’est ma tasse de thé, I thought, and booked it in the diary at once. What I didn’t realise was that it was part of La Nuit Blanche, a particularly French concept where a handful of art galleries, museums and other cultural institutions stay open all night free of charge. So called because to do a ‘nuit blanche‘ means doing an all-nighter. Chamber music is not really D’s tasse de thé, however, so I asked a French friend if she was interested. She liked the idea, but with more experience as a nuit blanch-er predicted it would entail queueing for hours.
An e-mail to the organiser established that you had to queue for each concert in turn; the room only held 80 people, so it was impossible to choose which concerts to go to. If you went to the 7pm one, there was no hope of getting into the next one as well; you had to get back in the queue and it was anyone’s guess whether you would get in for 9, 10, or 11pm.
Undeterred, I decided I would do my best to get in to the first concert, and see how I felt afterwards. I found it hard to imagine that string quartets would attract 4 hours of queues so, armed with a book, snacks, and multiple layers, I got there for 5.30pm. As I approached, scanning apprehensively for the crowds, a group of grey-haired ladies was talking to the museum attendant. ‘Yes, the queue starts here – you are very welcome to join it!’ He pointed to the empty cordoned-off area. Feeling smug, I took up my position beside them and opened my book.
Reading was rather difficult, though, thanks to the commotion alongside me. There were normally two parallel queues for the museum, with separate access to people with Paris museum passes, and a group of Chinese tourists who didn’t speak French had started queueing in this adjacent queue. I had the feeling this would end badly, despite the fact that they spoke to the attendants twice in English and were told to stay where they were. Half an hour later, they were brusquely informed that there was only one queue and they needed to join our queue, which was now a line of about 100 people stretching around the museum. The officials were quite unflustered by their violent exclamations, but thanks to our intercessions they were eventually assimilated into our queue. A few minutes later, when some exchanges in pidgin English with the ladies in front of me established that the queue was not actually for the museum, but a quartet concert, they all left in disgust.
The light was now fading and although it had been a balmy afternoon, I needed to get out both my fleeces before we were finally given our stickers for the 7pm concert and let into the museum. Still a beginner as far as Paris museums go, I had never been to the Musée de l’Orangerie before, and didn’t realise that there was a sizeable collection of Impressionist paintings here as well as the Monets. Even having seen the gigantic canvases in the Musée Marmottan Monet, walking through the two oval rooms filled with natural-seeming light is still astonishing. With their golden frames and mainly mauve and pink colour schemes, I found them even more beautiful than the larger collections.
Finally, the music: to kick off, the Zemlinsky quartet with Arriaga (which the programme notes described as a ‘Spanish Mozart’) and Dvorak’s ‘American’ quartet. Exciting to hear this from a Czech ensemble. Arriaga was a slightly surprising mixture of Mozart, Beethoven, and easy melodies; good fun, but the American quartet was pure exhilaration. I was right behind the cellist, with a good view of the other three, and able to appreciate the 2nd violin’s communicative grinning throughout.
Soon though, it was over and we were out into the cold night, demoted to the back of the queue. I found myself together with the front lady and another girl who had been behind me earlier. By this point, our established camaraderie allowed us to commiserate and complain about the lousy ticket system while waiting another 40 minutes to get the last tickets for the 10pm concert! Goodbye to any thoughts of staying for a third, then. Living in St Cloud makes doing a real Nuit Blanche a little more challenging and with D still on Singapore time there was no hope of getting picked up from a station late at night. Anyway, seeing as we had an hour in hand, my new friend Myriam and I headed off in search of an overpriced Croque Monsieur, which was the only fast food to be had around Concorde at that time of night.
The Quatuor Zaïde were a constrast to the Zemlinsky in every way: 4 girls instead of 4 men, and very young (I guessed mid-twenties). Once I’d got over the distraction provided by the man opposite looking uncannily like the singer will.i.am, I spent most of the time admiring the first violin’s flawless intonation and ability to make Bartok look like a walk in the park. All in all, and although I’d have liked to stay for Death and the Maiden at 4am, La nuit du Quatuor was a resounding success. Myriam and I exchanged e-mails so she could send me the photo she took with me in the audience (I’ll leave you to see if you can spot where I am). String quartets, Impressionist paintings, good socialising – can’t think of many evenings that manage to combine all three!