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12.6.13

Curse of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées

Does something about the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris encourage outrageous behavior in its audiences? The theater opened in 1913, 100 years ago, and quickly hosted the premiere of Debussy's Jeux and The Rite of Spring. The infamous riot that greeted the latter's first performance is only one of several controversial events that have happened in the theater. Pierre Gervasoni takes a look back at the history in an article (De Stravinsky à Dusapin, cent ans de tapages aux Champs-Elysées, June 10) in Le Monde (my translation):
On April 27, 1983, a young composer over six feet tall leaned over nicely to a woman audience member of an advanced age who had come, he thought, to congratulate him after the premiere of his first major orchestral work. The lady asked him a question and, taken by a sudden rage, tried to strike him several times with her handbag. She found it unacceptable that tax dollars had been used -- the work that had just been performed, Tre Scalini, was a commission from Radio France -- to produce such cacophony. The tall man is named Pascal Dusapin and the scene unfolded in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, in Paris.

Seventy years earlier, almost to the month, another composer, Igor Stravinsky, was nearly assaulted, in the same place, by an enraged crowd. Does the famous hall on the Avenue Montaigne, which is celebrating its centenary, contain a micro-climate capable of driving the public to acts of violence? One might believe it when rereading its history looking for scandals.
It happened to Stravinsky a second time, in 1945, when student composers, from the class of Olivier Messiaen, booed and blew bicycle whistles after his Four Norwegian Moods because it was too neoclassical in style. Messiaen himself had two confrontations, after he performed in the French premiere of the first book of Boulez's Structures pour deux pianos, in 1952, and again at the French premiere of his own Chronochromie in 1962. After Rite, the best-known incident is probably the violent scene after the premiere of Edgar Varèse's Déserts in 1954. One newspaper review concluded that "M. Varèse should be summarily shot: he is the Dominici of music." The reference is to the infamous murder of an English tourist that year, for which a French farmer was condemned to the guillotine.

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