Magazine article The New Yorker

Surround Sound

Magazine article The New Yorker

Surround Sound

Article excerpt


The new Philharmonie de Paris combines sing-alongs and symphonies.

In the concert hall, designed by Jean Nouvel, many listeners sit in podlike balconies.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the French conductor Jules Pasdeloup presented orchestral concerts at the Cirque d'Hiver, in Paris--a five-thousand-seat arena that still stands, at the edge of the Marais. Pasdeloup named the series "Concerts Populaires de Musique Classique," hoping to attract an audience beyond the upper classes. Listeners occupied benches on various sides of the orchestra, and the cheapest tickets cost seventy-five centimes--perhaps the price of a movie ticket in today's dollars. Verlaine, Mallarme, Zola, and Cezanne were regular patrons, joining in fiery battles over current trends, most notably over Wagner's so-called "music of the future." Verlaine later recalled in a poem that he had "thrown a punch / For Wagner," and a character in Zola's "L'Oeuvre" emerges from one fracas at the Cirque with a black eye. Others found the spectacle irretrievably vulgar. Des Esseintes, the ultra-decadent hero of Joris-Karl Huysmans's novel "Against the Grain," bemoans the sight of Pasdeloup "beating sauce in the air and massacring disconnected episodes of Wagner, to the immense delight of an ignorant crowd." In an era before recordings, the conductor helped to create a mass public not only for the classics but for the most daring music of the day.

Last month, as I attended programs at the Philharmonie de Paris, the city's costly and controversial new concert hall, I thought of Pasdeloup's enterprise. The Philharmonie, which opened in January, is, like its nineteenth-century predecessor, a project of popularization. It joins the sprawling complex of the Parc de la Villette, which was inaugurated in the nineteen-eighties, in a deconstructivist design by Bernard Tschumi; the grounds also encompass the Paris Conservatoire and the Cite de la Musique, which houses two smaller halls. All this is in the Nineteenth Arrondissement, in the northeast of Paris, just inside the Boulevard Peripherique, which surrounds the city. The aim is to draw an audience not only from the elite neighborhoods flanking the Seine but also from the poorer suburbs. In the Grande Salle, the Philharmonie's main auditorium, listeners are seated in the round, with podlike balconies floating above a square-shaped stage. Such "vineyard-style" arrangements have lately become de rigueur, after the example of the Philharmonie in Berlin. The effect in Paris is particularly dramatic: you feel as though you were peering down at a musical boxing ring.

The most remarkable thing about the Philharmonie, though, is its pricing. While I was in town, the hall hosted a weekend series called "Orchestres en Fete," or "Orchestras in Celebration," in which twelve ensembles from France and Luxembourg appeared both in the Grande Salle and at the Cite de la Musique. Most of the events charged a flat fee of twelve euros for adults, eight for children; two offered tickets in a range from ten to thirty euros (at current rates, eleven to thirty-three dollars). At the New York Philharmonic, thirty-three dollars might get you a partial-view seat in the second or third tier. The Philharmonie's prices are possible only because the institution is publicly subsidized. It's an expensive gamble, for if crowds fail to materialize the enterprise could be dismissed as a boondoggle. Before the opening, pessimists predicted that traditional concertgoers, accustomed to patronizing venues in the fashionable area around the Champs-Elysees, would never venture out to the Nineteenth, which used to be considered a rough neighborhood.

So far, the doubters have been proved wrong. Some fifteen thousand people attended concerts that weekend, and nine thousand more visited the campus, whether to see exhibitions or to participate in educational sessions. (The Philharmonie provides hands-on instrumental workshops for children and adults. …

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