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Long wait for Paris symphony hall reaches frantic finale

Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

The Orchestre de Paris moves into its €390 million new home Wednesday after a hectic race to get the troubled behemoth ready in time. Architect Jean Nouvel has decided to snub the hasty opening, saying the Philharmonie has "shot itself in the foot".


Perched on the French capital's northeastern tip, the ambitious Philharmonie de Paris is intended to fill a glaring hole in the city's cultural landscape. Though Paris commands an impressive artistic reputation, featuring the world's most visited museum and two opera houses, it is noticeably lacking in world-class orchestral venues.

The steel-and-aluminium structure, designed by prominent French architect Jean Nouvel, will replace the art deco Salle Pleyel as the city’s main symphony hall. It will open with an all-French repertoire on Wednesday, January 14, featuring works by Henri Dutilleux, Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Ravel, as well as a world premiere of Thierry Escaich’s “Concerto for Orchestra”, conducted by Estonian-born American director, Paavo Jarvi.

French President François Hollande will be in the audience, underscoring the government’s relief at seeing the agonisingly long project finally bear fruit. Financed in equal parts by Paris city hall and the French state, the building cost three times as much as first estimated in 2001, and took almost twice as long to build. Its outer shell, resembling a collision of tectonic plates, appears to reflect this tortured history.

‘Intimate’ experience

From a distance, the Philharmonie looks like a rusty old spaceship of Independence Day proportions that has somehow crashed into the fringes of Paris, its metal coat steadily peeling off. Upon moving closer the peels take on bird-like shapes, forming a giant flock against the backdrop of a suitably grey Parisian sky.

The Philarmonie's state-of-the-art auditorium can be adapted to meet the requirements of different musical genres.
The Philarmonie's state-of-the-art auditorium can be adapted to meet the requirements of different musical genres.

Inside the main concert hall, the warm colours and sweeping, curved balconies contrast with the outer shell’s stark, angular contours. The enveloping auditorium features several floating cocoons designed to offer spectators an “intimate” experience. At 32 metres, the distance between the conductor and the farthest seat is substantially lower than at many concert halls with smaller capacities.

The cutting-edge hall is also highly adaptable. Seats located behind the orchestra can be removed to make way for a choir. Conversely, the orchestral pit can be replaced by a standing area for non-classical events, increasing total capacity from 2,400 seats to 3,600. Seated viewers will benefit from ample leg room, a rare luxury in a city used to cramped fauteuils in venerable old buildings. Those accustomed to the punishing benches in the higher balconies of the Opera Garnier, the French capital's world-famous opera house, will feel like they just got an upgrade from economy to business class.

‘So new we haven’t tested it’

“There is no question the hall will look amazing,” said Paavo Jarvi, music director of the Orchestre de Paris. “We’ll soon find out whether the sound is just as good.” The building’s designers say they have used an innovative natural acoustics system to achieve the best possible sound inside the auditorium, while keeping out all other noises.

Sitting alongside the French capital’s busy ring road, the Périphérique, as well as the Zenith and Trabendo concert halls, where some of the world’s loudest rock bands perform, the Philharmonie will certainly need to be as soundproof as it gets. On Monday, the countless welding torches and electric drills still labouring on the building provided a perfect test of the structure’s famed insulation as the Orchestre de Paris tested its brand new auditorium for the very first time, just 48 hours ahead of the grand opening. One cello player later spoke of the sound’s “dazzling transparence”.

Paavo Jarvi, 52, is music director of the Orchestre de Paris.
Paavo Jarvi, 52, is music director of the Orchestre de Paris.

Jarvi said it would take time for the orchestra and the Philharmonie’s technical teams to find the perfect acoustic. “A great hall and an orchestra have to become one body,” he explained. The frantic race to complete construction means the conductor and his orchestra have had precious little time to prepare for the opening. “It is so new we are yet to set foot on stage”, Jarvi said, describing the next few months as “a learning process and a foray into the unknown”.

One thing is certain: as the Philharmonie welcomes Hollande and its other guests on Wednesday, its façade will be markedly out of tempo. The long-awaited symphony hall is still a gigantic building site abuzz with cranes, lorries and hurried workers. Large sections of the façade are yet to be fitted with their glass and metal coating, and the site’s president, Laurent Bayle, now concedes the exterior may not be complete until the summer. “The auditorium is absolutely ready,” he said. “But it will take several months to put the finishing touches to the façade.”

Farewell to chic west

Still, the Philharmonie has come an awfully long way since the troubled times in 2010 when it looked like the building would never rise above its foundations. Back then, as the financial crisis brought the world economy to a standstill, the French government froze the project amid mounting concern about its bloated budget. The vast building site went silent for over a year, until the then president Nicolas Sarkozy decided to get it going once again.

There has been more bickering since, with the Philharmonie’s architect and president arguing over several cost-cutting measures, including the decision to opt for a far less ambitious foyer than was envisioned by Nouvel. Criticised for routinely overrunning costs, the prize-winning French architect has effectively been sidelined and has made no secret of his irritation.

Architect Jean Nouvel has been forced to make do with cheaper materials amid efforts to limit cost overruns.
Architect Jean Nouvel has been forced to make do with cheaper materials amid efforts to limit cost overruns.

“Construction is going ahead without my approval,” Nouvel told Vanity Fair last month. “There is a desire to rush things so as to meet a deadline that is simply not realistic, and is detrimental to quality.”

On Wednesday, just hours ahead of the grand opening, the architect announced in a scathing op-ed published in French daily Le Monde that he would not be attending the curtain raiser. “The architecture has been martyrised, the details sabotaged,” Nouvel writes, claiming the Philharmonie “has shot itself in the foot”.

Bayle will now face another, perhaps more daunting challenge in filling the concert hall. Many of the orchestra’s most loyal followers are elderly citizens from the French capital’s posh west, where the Salle Pleyel is located. Getting them across town to the remote and distinctly less affluent northeast will be no easy task. Some are angry that the state-run Cité de la musique, which owns both Pleyel and the Philharmonie, is planning to cancel all orchestral performances at the art deco hall, replacing them with pop concerts and stand-up comedy.

Reaching out to the banlieues

Bayle says the point of the Philharmonie is to democratize access to musical genres traditionally associated with well-heeled audiences. He described the new venue as “a hand extended to the banlieues”, referring to the troubled suburbs of Paris that are largely cut off from the French capital’s cultural scene.

“Art and culture need to find new ways to talk to society, particularly through education,” he said, emphasizing the Philharmonie’s role as a place of learning. In addition to the main auditorium, the vast building will accommodate an exhibition area, several rehearsal halls and dedicated rooms to initiate schoolchildren to music All spaces will open to the public, including the recreational roof, accessible from an adjoining park, which will offer stunning views over both Paris and the suburbs of Pantin and Aubervilliers.

The Philharmonie is nestled in a park next to other concert halls and the French capital's busy ring road.
The Philharmonie is nestled in a park next to other concert halls and the French capital's busy ring road.

Pricing policy appears to reflect Bayle’s declared aim to attract a younger, more diverse audience. Starting at 10 euros, tickets will be substantially cheaper than at Pleyel. They will sound like an even better deal this summer when free boats start making their way up the Saint-Martin and Ourcq canals, ferrying spectators from the Musée d’Orsay and other Paris landmarks to the brand new concert hall.

Until then, Bayle hopes the Philharmonie’s opening will help give the cultural industry a new sense of purpose in a country shaken by the worst terrorist attacks in half a century. “Culture has to carry values of tolerance and freedom of expression,” he said. Jarvi, the conductor, said the first week of concerts would start with a tribute to the victims of last week’s attacks on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris. “But we don’t want to change the programme into something too tragic,” he cautioned. “The (Charlie Hebdo) humorists wouldn’t have liked it.”

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