The group of concert halls located at the Cité de la Musique in Paris’s Parc de la Villette, known as the Philharmonie, has now been open for almost five years, but for various reasons, I had never managed to attend a concert there until recently. So, with apologies for coming so late to the party, here are some thoughts.
The main building, Philharmonie 1, designed by Jean Nouvel, has been in the news again recently because of an acrimonious dispute with the architect. The Philharmonie claims that Nouvel owes it €170.6 million to compensate for time and cost overruns: originally set at €173 million, the building cost €386 million and was delivered two years late. For his part, Nouvel is now suing the Philharmonie for €170.6 million, arguing that the fine is disproportionate and unprecedented and would force his firm to go out of business. No doubt the dispute will rumble on for many more years.
As for the building itself, the exterior, with its aluminum panels in a basketweave design, is striking to look at, even if one has the sense that it will age badly. The foyer area, with its overly cluttered ceiling design, feels messy and somewhat oppressive.
What matters most, however, is the sound and layout of the main concert hall, the Grande Salle Pierre Boulez, named after the major French composer and conductor, who died in 2016. It is difficult not to be impressed. Comprising 2,400 seats (with the possibility of expanding to accommodate up to 3,650 spectators), the hall manages the rare feat of retaining a real sense of intimacy. This is achieved by various floating balconies that enable even the farthest spectator to be only 36 yards away from the conductor.
The movable panels suspended around and above the audience give appropriate importance to the acoustics. The concert I attended certainly tested those sonic possibilities to the maximum, opening with orchestra, chorus and solo singers in Debussy’s Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, and then exploiting all aspects of orchestral forces with Stravinsky’s magnificent ballet score, The Firebird.
The overall sound within the hall is clear and clean, and both solo and full orchestral passages come across vividly. The only disconcerting effect of the brilliant acoustic engineering is the way all the sound seems to come from one hovering space. Whenever a solo instrument played, it was impossible to locate the player through the sound alone; instead, I had the sense that each solo was coming (albeit with great clarity) from somewhere offstage.
As for the music itself, one can understand why Claudio Abbado chose to make a suite out of the music Debussy wrote for Gabriele d’Annunzio’s sprawling mystery play. Even though there is little cohesion between the different elements, much of the music is sublime, and, apart from a few ragged entries, the chorus of the Orchestre de Paris was on scintillating form. The two soprano soloists, Sandrine Piau and Julie Fuchs, one placed behind the chorus and the other to the side of the orchestra, were incandescent.
The Orchestre de Paris, under the direction of Valery Gergiev, started the Stravinsky somewhat sluggishly but became ever more engaged as the music developed. The extraordinarily rhythmic and dramatic finale (on a par with anything Stravinsky wrote in The Rite of Spring) was as exciting as I have ever heard it.
With the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth falling in 2020, a varied program of the German composer’s music will be performed at the Philharmonie over the coming months. What better opportunity to try for yourself the wonders of this new(ish) concert venue?