Le mot juste

From Dénis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, a monument of the Enlightenment that contained a lot of words. In addition to being a philosopher genius, Diderot was also known for his bon mot, and coined the expression l’esprit d’escalier.

STEVE MARTIN once said, “Those French – it’s like they have a different word for everything.”

As a joke about the arrogance of English-speakers, the quip is on point. But otherwise it’s not really true, is it? As most students of French conveniently discover, an English word often becomes a French word with just a slight change in spelling and pronunciation – a source of continual deliverance on my high school French exams. So, for instance, Karina Gauvin, the great lyric soprano, would be described in her native Québec as a soprano lyrique. Semantically, Anglophones reading a score by that kook Erik Satie will have any easy enough time making sense of his musical directions to play superstitieusement or with clairvoyance, even if they otherwise find such directions baffling.

Such similarities may be because French and English share common Indo-European roots, or they may be because an English word is, in fact, a French borrowing. Hundreds of languages today also have English borrowings, but the French have not been so lucky in the expressions they’ve absorbed from us: after all, hot dog, weekend, and happy hour, all terms the French use, lack a certain je ne c’est quoi compared to l’ésprit d’escalier, déja-vu, and avant garde.

As a quick and dirty translation technique, exploiting similarities or borrowings often comes up short. As students of French sometimes learn the hard way, an exciting school trip to the art gallery should not be called excitant, unless one means to imply that one was especially taken with the nude works. To order dîner in Montréal is not to order dinner, but lunch, although if you’re holidaying there poutine should do in both cases. Conversely, young Francophones can be forgiven for thinking that matinées take place only in the morning, rather than the afternoon when they usually occur, since matinée is clearly derived from the French word, matin, for morning.

This last quirk probably has more to do with the evolution of theatre and concert presentation than L’Académie française’s stubborn insistence on having a different word for everything. Facts on File’s Dictionary of the Theatre tells us that the first matinée was presented in 1843 at New York’s Olympic Theater, and we assume this was in the morning. This entry also says that matinées “tend to attract audiences consisting of children and organized outings.”

This much has probably always been true of matinées, and it’s certainly true of the MCO’s matinées. We have three afternoon matinées scheduled for this season, and they’re a great way of advancing our education and outreach goals by entertaining and educating school groups. But school groups only ever occupy a small portion of Westminster’s available seats, and increasingly senior groups from Saint Boniface and across the city have been scheduling outings to our matinées. They enjoy the chance to see some of the world’s greatest musicians perform when it’s still early enough to arrive and leave in the daylight, which illuminates the concerts and the church’s stained glass so beautifully.

And what truly great musicians we have lined up for this year’s matinees. At 1pm on 5 December, we perform the music of Debussy and others with highly regarded flutist Susan Hoeppner joined by dashing Frenchman Emmanuel Ceysson, known as the enfant terrible of the harp. (We could see the American press translating this as bad boy, and they wouldn’t be far off.) Emmanuel’s ravishing debut with the MCO in 2016 was the sleeper hit of the season, prompting audiences to rush to the box office to inform us that they’d just experienced the best performance of their lives. Susan has also performed with us before, and we’re sure audiences will once again be dazzled by her virtuosity.

Then there’s our 19 March matinee: a tour de force concert — featuring Haydn’s Symphony No. 45, Mozart’s Symphony No. 29, and new music by Kevin Lau and Vivian Fung—shining a light on the orchestral musicians who play with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra with solos aplenty. Finally, there’s our season’s coup de grace: the 26 April matinee with 22-year old Jan Lisiecki, who’s been called a “prodigy” (CBC), “the most ‘complete’ pianist of his age” (BBC Music Magazine), and even a Mozart of our times. So, as I say, some truly great musicians.

Commandez vos billets aujourd’hui.

— Conrad Sweatman