Philharmonie de Paris Prepares to Open Amid Controvers
PARIS — Following a long and difficult gestation that is not entirely over, La Philharmonie de Paris is set to open in January 2015. If all goes according to plan, Paris will have one of the finest — and, with a price tag of €381 million, or $505 million, one of the most costly — concert halls anywhere in the world.
The Orchestre de Paris, now housed at the venerable Salle Pleyel in central Paris, will be its resident orchestra, but programming will also include a wide array of guest organizations and solo artists.
“It is unbelievable,” said the conductor William Christie, whose Baroque ensemble Les Arts Florissants will also move to the Philharmonie. “I’ve never seen another project like it. It’s reminiscent of the creation of Lincoln Center, or maybe some of the recent Chinese projects.”
Controversy has dogged the Philharmonie from the beginning. Cost overruns, its relatively remote location, issues concerning artistic decision-making and even whether Paris really needed a new concert hall are some of the things people are talking about.
There is little disagreement, however, about the spectacular nature of the building designed by the architect Jean Nouvel, whose previous work has included concert halls in Lucerne, Switzerland, and Copenhagen and the redesigned Lyon opera house. The extravagant aluminum structure looks like a collection of randomly stacked slabs, with significant space between them and a vertical slab cutting through the others.
The 2,400-seat auditorium reflects the influence of Berlin’s concert hall, also called the Philharmonie, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. All three are in the so-called vineyard style, with tiers of seats and balconies surrounding the stage in the manner of a vineyard on a slope. This configuration has become popular because it allows for unobstructed sight lines and promotes audience involvement by lessening the distance between the conductor and those seated farthest away, as compared to the conventional rectangular, or shoebox, design.
In the Philharmonie, the distance between the conductor and those farthest away will be 32 meters, or 105 feet, compared with 47 meters for the Salle Pleyel, which has 500 fewer seats.
The new hall will also feature modular seating that can be reconfigured in function of the artists or the works being presented. For example, if a concert features a singer, the stage can be positioned so that it is adjacent to a wall, thereby eliminating seats that would give a view of the singer’s back.
The idea of a new Paris concert hall was first floated in the 1970s. The administration of President François Mitterrand moved ahead with its “Grands Projets,” or modern monuments for Paris, during the 1980s — a program that included the creation of the Parc de la Villette complex, which encompasses the music museum and small concert hall of the Cité de la Musique. But in the end the construction of a new opera house, the Opéra Bastille, took priority over a large concert hall, and the decision to move ahead with the Philharmonie was made only in 2006.
Construction began in 2010, with costs to be shared by the French government (45 percent), the city of Paris (45 percent) and the regional council of the Île-de-France (10 percent).
The imposition of austerity measures by the French government in 2011 caused a number of cultural projects to be called off, but work on the Philharmonie had progressed to an extent that cancellation was ruled out: It had become, in effect, too big to derail. Construction was interrupted because of delays in government funding, which created added costs.
The mounting expenditures “have worried some and infuriated others,” Mr. Christie said.
But according to Laurent Bayle, president of the Philharmonie and director of the Cité de la Musique, the extent of cost overruns has been exaggerated. Some reports have pointed out that the final cost will be nearly three times the original estimate of €130 million, but Mr. Bayle said that lower figure represented essentially the estimated physical cost of the building and excluded other categories of expenses, such as fees and equipment. These other expenses, which add up to approximately €100 million, are reflected in the €381 million total. Inflation and costs of complying with environmental and energy requirements also increased the final tally, he said.
Questions have also been raised about the decision to put the new hall in Parc de la Villette. The location offered open land for such a big project as well as proximity to the Cité de la Musique and the Paris Conservatoire, which is also located there. But the complex is in Paris’s somewhat gritty 19th Arrondissement, at the northeastern edge of the city just inside the Boulevard Périphérique, or ring road.
Commentators have wondered whether Parisian classical-music lovers, who are accustomed to attending concerts in posher and more convenient locations such as the Salle Pleyel and the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, will venture that far afield. The Philharmonie will have parking spaces for more than 600 automobiles, though the capacity of the hall is four times that. A trip on the Métro, or subway, can easily take 45 minutes from central Paris.
Far from regarding the location as a disadvantage, Mr. Bayle sees it as an asset in helping to cultivate a new audience for classical music — which, in Paris as everywhere, is graying. Mr. Bayle has said he wants to do away with what he characterizes as today’s musical split: classical music for senior citizens and the well-off, popular music for the young. He points out that while 2.5 million people live in relatively well-to-do Paris, 11 million people live outside of the city in the more modest suburbs — yet these suburban dwellers make up only about 20 percent to 30 percent of the audience at a typical classical music concert.
“It is essential that we draw these people in,” Mr. Bayle said.
The programming for the Philharmonie’s first six months of operation, from January to June 2015, reflects that desire. Of 270 concerts, more than half, or 150, are classical. But the Philharmonie will also reach out to its new neighbors with 70 concerts embracing pop, jazz and world music. There will also be 50 family and young people’s concerts, primarily on weekends. The annual budget is expected to be €32 million, of which €9 million each will come from the French government and the city of Paris and €14 million from ticket sales and private contributors and sponsors.
The Philharmonie will reach out in another sense as well. Ticket prices are expected to be approximately 15 percent less expensive than for comparable events at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées or the Salle Pleyel, each of which has a capacity of several hundred fewer seats than the Philharmonie.
Paavo Järvi, music director of the Orchestre de Paris, is quick to point out that the orchestra will not “dumb down” its repertoire to fill seats. “I am determined to have programming that is artistically interesting and challenging, not just popular works, even if the box office suffers somewhat,” he said by telephone in July.
The orchestra has made important strides under Mr. Järvi, who took over in 2010. Mr. Bayle mentions the acclaim it won at last summer’s Aix-en-Provence Festival playing Strauss’s “Elektra” in the late Patrice Chéreau’s last opera production. French orchestras are famous for their wind sections, and the Orchestre’s is particularly strong. The musicians are reputed to have an excellent working relationship with Mr. Järvi — better, it is said, than with the previous music director, Christoph Eschenbach.
The orchestra has traditionally had a Germanic orientation under conductors such as Herbert von Karajan, Georg Solti and Christoph von Dohnanyi. Mr. Järvi has programmed more French music, which has also lifted the spirits of this French orchestra. “Players have thanked me for bringing back French repertoire,” he said.
On Aug. 26, Mr Järvi announced that he would not renew his contract with the Orchestre when it expires at the end of summer 2016 to devote more time to the NHK Symphony Orchestra, of which he becomes music director in October 2015. He will remain music director of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie in Bremen, Germany.
Reached by his agent in Florida, where he is vacationing with his family, Mr. Järvi said by email that his comments about the Philharmonie and his decision not to renew his contract as music director “are completely separate issues.” In any case, his decision bars the prospect that the Orchestre, which has had a relatively high turnover rate of music directors, could have had a long-term relationship with a conductor under whom it has prospered.
The opening of the Philharmonie will have ramifications for Paris’s other concert venues, most notably the Salle Pleyel, the current home of the Orchestre de Paris. The much-admired hall, built in the 1920s in Art Deco style and renovated in 2004-2006, will no longer program classical music once the Orchestre moves to its new home.
As Mr. Bayle explained it, Salle Pleyel was acquired from its private owner to become part of the Cité de la Musique and as such falls under Mr. Bayle’s domain. Because of the expense of the Philharmonie, the government financed the purchase with debt. The Salle Pleyel will now be expected on its own to make payments on that debt, and in Mr. Bayle’s view only a shift toward more commercially viable programming will make this possible.
As for the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, its director, Michel Franck, said he was not overly worried about its future. True to its origins as a theater, the venue presents operas and other stage works, but improved acoustics since Mr. Franck took over in 2010 have enhanced its status as one of Paris’s main concert venues.
“So far none of our soloists or ensembles has left us for the Philharmonie,” Mr. Franck said. He did say he would keep an eye on the Philharmonie’s pricing structure because he doesn’t want his theater to gain a reputation as an expensive hall.
Mr. Franck plays down the concerns that swirl around his new competition. “When the Barbican Center opened in London 30 years ago, people thought almost no one would go there,” he said. “Now it’s totally successful.”
At this point, perhaps the biggest unknown factor concerns the Philharmonie’s acoustics. In designing the hall, Mr. Nouvel worked with the New Zealand firm Marshall Day Acoustics and with Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics of Japan. Both firms enjoy solid reputations, with Mr. Toyota in particular having an impressive track record for successful halls, including Disney Hall. But you never really know until an orchestra is there to try things out. Acoustical tests for the Philharmonie are set for November.
“We have to hope the gods of acoustics are with us,” Mr. Järvi said in July. “If not, there could be a second French Revolution.”