Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Paris Philharmonie beats any concert hall in London

The Times
Richard Morrison

In a week of funerals and post-mortems, France desperately needs a mood lifter. However, the question is whether the Philharmonie de Paris concert hall will provide it. After nine years of building, £316 million of spending and more crises and arguments than there are little aluminium birds studded in its exterior walls (that’s 340,000, if you’re interested), Paris’s new 2,400-seat concert hall opened for business on Wednesday with a gala attended by President Hollande, Anne Hidalgo, the formidable mayor of Paris — and, of course, a small army of armed police.
So the Philharmonie is finally open, but that doesn’t mean it’s finished. Jean Nouvel, its architect, boycotted the gala because he said the hall wasn’t ready. He wasn’t wrong. I would have politely overlooked the makeshift rows of audience chairs, numbered with bits of paper, that had been hastily plonked down where they had run out of time to install the plush stalls seats — except that the floor underneath was missing too. “It’s the world’s first wobbly concert hall,” said someone as we gingerly toed the temporary hardboard. And the first sticky one too. Some foyers were cordoned off because varnish was still wet.
For €390 million — almost twice the estimate — the city might at least have expected a solid floor. Yet President Hollande, whose government split the entire building cost with the city of Paris and the Région Île-de-France, was in no mood to be anything but upbeat, especially after the events of the past nine days. “Even German concert halls sometimes go over budget,” he quipped in a rousing speech where he proclaimed Paris to be the world capital of liberty, culture, music and just about every other human virtue.
The mood of the concert — given by the Orchestre de Paris, which will be the main resident ensemble — was also defiantly celebratory. Though it was dedicated to the “victims of terror” and included consoling extracts from Fauré’s Requiem, there was nothing mournful about the showy parade of Ravel and contemporary music that Paavo Järvi conducted.
Despite there being almost no time for acoustic tests and adjustments, the space seems gloriously resonant. And Nouvel’s interior, an asymmetrical flying-circus of audaciously curved balconies that appear entirely unsupported by the interior’s birch-clad walls, is breathtaking. You can see why its construction went three years over deadline.
The success of the opening gala will come as a relief to the Philharmonie’s management, which has endured years of hostile comment. The notion of building a great concert hall in Paris has been around for decades, but only in 2006 did it take flight. “It was you British that did it,” said Laurent Bayle, the Philharmonie’s president. “You won the competition to host the Olympics. We were devastated. Paris is a city that demands a new grand projet every ten years.”
Even by the fantastical standards of the Mitterrand-era grands projets, however, the cost and time overrun on the Philharmonie (which also includes a vast music-education centre and an art gallery) has been spectacular. Even more controversial, however, has been the decision to site the new hall in the Parc de la Villette, out by the ring road in the unfashionable northeast of the city.
That was done with good intentions: to attract new, younger audiences from the suburbs rather than rely on the wealthy middle-classes in the city centre. “The average age of Paris’s classical music audiences has gone up 12 years in two decades,” Bayle declares. “We have to find a solution.”
However, many loyal concertgoers are up in arms, not only about being made to travel all of five Métro stops from Gare du Nord to the new venue, but also by the decision to ban classical music from the much-loved art deco Salle Pleyel, Paris’s main classical venue for nearly a century. The authorities claim that there aren’t enough concertgoers to support both halls and that the Philharmonie must be given time to establish itself. However, thousands of Salle Pleyel regulars have signed a protest petition and the ban faces a legal challenge.
On our side of the Channel all this may seem faintly farcical. Yet Londoners in particular have no reason to be derisive. Even in its unfinished state the new Philharmonie looks and (more importantly) sounds like something London’s musicians and classical-music punters can only dream about: a world-class concert hall. For all the cosmetic (but expensive) “improvements” to the Royal Festival Hall, the Royal Albert Hall and the Barbican, they remain acoustically mediocre. That’s more than embarrassing. The lack of a hall in London remotely as good as those in Birmingham or Gateshead, let alone Berlin, Vienna and now Paris, is threatening London’s status as the world’s classical-music capital.
In Britain, of course, there is no question of funding a new hall completely out of public funds, but surely we could cook up something along the lines of the public-private partnership that enabled the Guildhall School of Music & Drama to acquire fine new performing spaces under penthouse apartments on a prime Square Mile site.
I know the perfect place for London’s new concert hall too. It’s the disused part of Smithfield Market, which now seems to be falling into dereliction following the government’s rejection of a redevelopment proposal last year and which will be close to the new Crossrail interchange at Farringdon. It would be churlish not to wish Paris good luck with its new Philharmonie, after everything that has happened — but I don’t want to be forced to jump on Eurostar if I want to hear London’s excellent orchestras playing in a decent hall.

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