RUE SAINTE-CATHERINE on a breezy, overcast Sunday. The sidewalks are quiet except for the occasional beggar or passerby, and the atmosphere, with its odd mix of seedy dépanneurs, the occasional clothing store, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores, graffiti, strip clubs, sex shops, and pubs, is gritty and apathetic. It seems shameful that Montreal's most distinguished concert venue and cultural center, the Place-des-Arts, would end up surrounded by such a decrepit neighborhood, and yet there it is, a modern-ancient temple, cryptic, gray, and grand, with pink flowering trees peeking out of the corners. A man is curled up under a blanket with his two black dogs near entrance to the ticket office.
I had come to see Jean-François Latour, a celebrated young Canadian pianist, play Chopin. Salle 5 was dreary and I was surprised that it was not filled with concert-goers, but perhaps 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon is not prime-time for such performances. The audience settled and the pianist took the stage.
As a great lover of Chopin's works, I have certainly developed a number of fixed ideas about how they should be interpreted, and was initially skeptical as Latour began with the Polonaise in C-sharp minor. The opening chords sounded heavy and the notes of the trills were often slightly different from those which I have become accustomed to hearing at other concerts and on my recordings at home, but my overall impression was that the playing was admirably deliberate and imaginative. As Latour delved into Opus 33 (Four Mazurkas), it was as if he were taking us on a comfortable, contemplative tour through an unsentimental but beautiful dream-turned-reality, and I must add that the listener was forced to wake up far too soon. This was quickly remedied, of course, as he played all twenty-four preludes from Opus 28 in smooth, rapid succession. The ending was dramatic, and as Latour's hands fell into his lap, a man in the audience began calling "Bravo! Bravo!", and after much clapping, we were treated to a delightful encore.
I was inspired by Latour's calmness, long breath, and control, particularly insofar as these qualities lent beauty and thought to the works without making them the least bit stiff. This was not wild, emotional, intuitive playing by any means, and I was fascinated when, during a particularly difficult passage, I noticed that Latour appeared to be gently smiling! This virtuoso is no flamboyant, self-centered showman, but rather a tranquil voice in a chaotic world-- the dirty city streets were left behind and my visions of beauty and order were happily restored to me. Such is the transformative power of the arts in the hands of a master; we are reminded, in a dignified and pleasant manner, to look at our surroundings and care about them, never to let them deteriorate into our nightmares, but to work, calmly and happily, to turn them into something closer to our greatest dreams.