Philharmonie de Paris

After huge cost overruns and years of bitter controversy, the Paris Philharmonic concert hall (Philharmonie 1) finally went into operation in January 2015. The architect, Jean Nouvel, boycotted the opening because he said the building was not finished; the acoustics of the large hall still needed adjusting and other parts of the building were still being built.

In the French press, Jean Nouvel was quoted as saying that there is a “French disease which consists of underestimating the cost of large public projects” in order to get them approved by the government. As a long-time resident of Germany, I can only comment that this “French disease” is at least as common in Germany as it is in France. Just think of the Berlin Airport, or Stuttgart 21, or especially the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, a much larger project which will end up costing over twice as much as the Philharmonie in Paris.

In June 2015 Jean Nouvel held a public meeting at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal to give his side of the story of what all went wrong during the construction of the Philharmonie. If I could have stayed in Paris for one more day I would have gone to the meeting, just to see and hear this famous architect in person.

Although I was not able to attend Jean Nouvel’s meeting at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal, I did go out to the far northeast corner of Paris (19th arrondissement) to have a look at his new Philharmonie in the Parc de la Villette and to attend a concert there.

My first impression of the outside of the building was that it looked like a steep mountain of dirty snow, or like glacier sprinkled with volcanic ash. 

Belly folds, with people waiting on the terrace

To get up to the large concert hall you can either take the stairs (which nobody did when I was there, since it was a hot day) or take the escalator or one of the elevators.

Above the terrace, where the people are standing, there is a strange architectural feature that reminds me of the belly folds of a walrus, or of a corpulent human. So far, I have not figured out what the function of these belly folds might be, but perhaps someone can explain. 

Terrace at the entrance to the concert hall

Here we are on the terrace, where people are while waiting for the doors to the concert hall to open. From up close, the grey, white and grey splotches on the outer walls turn out to be birds, 340,000 of them.

Grande Salle, Philharmonie 1

Although I was not overly impressed by the outward appearance of the new Philharmonie 1, I was completely convinced by the magnificent Grande Salle, the large concert hall, where I attended one of the last concerts of the Spring 2015 season.

This concert hall (like most modern concert halls that I know of) was inspired by the pioneering work of the German architect Hans Scharoun (1893-1972), and particularly by his Berlin Philharmonie, which was built from 1956 to 1963.

As in Berlin, the new Philharmonie 1 in Paris is based on the principle that the orchestra and other performers are in the middle and are completely surrounded by the audience. The new Grande Salle in Paris has 2400 seats, partly on irregularly shaped balconies, and the furthest seats are only 32 meters from the conductor (compared to 40 or 50 meters in most large symphony halls). Acoustic experts were involved in the planning from the very beginning. This principle of starting from the middle and working outwards might help to explain why the outer form of the building is less impressive than the inside.

The concert I attended was called Couleurs latines (Latin Colors) and consisted mainly of Latin American compositions, played by the Orchestre de Paris (which is now based in the Philharmonie instead of in Salle Pleyel) under the direction of the young Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra (born in 1980).

Since I was aware that Alondra de la Parra is not universally admired among European orchestra musicians, I bought a ticket for a seat directly behind the orchestra, so I could have a clear view of the conductor. Some musicians say she has an eccentric conducting style and they can’t follow her, some even say that she dances instead of conducting (apparently there is a video that gives this impression), so I wanted to see for myself.

After watching her conduct an entire concert, my impression is that she is a perfectly competent conductor with a quite conventional conducting style. She always made clear exactly what she wanted, and the musicians of the Orchestre de Paris had no trouble following her as far as I could tell. I have the distinct impression that the criticisms are mainly the result of prejudice against female conductors, rather than any real problems with her conducting.

She and the orchestra were enthusiastically applauded after each piece and at the end of the concert, but the real star was the Brazilian composer and guitarist Yamandu Costa (also born in 1980), whose Concerto Fronteira had its French premiere at this concert. Afterwards Costa gave an encore in the form of a dazzling twenty-minute guitar solo, during which Alondra de la Parra took a seat in the second row of the orchestra to listen.

The concert was nearly sold out, by the way. Although most of the people around me were speaking French, there were also a lot of Spanish and Portuguese speaking people in the audience, and up in one of the balconies some people held up a large Brazilian flag in honor of Yamandu Costa. 

Grande Salle

To get a good photo of the Grande Salle you would need a wide-angle lens, which I didn’t have, but I hope these photos will give some idea of what the hall looks like. 

Ceiling of the large hall

The elements hanging from the ceiling are not only to hang lights from, but also to enhance the acoustics.

Corridor in the intermission

In the intermission (“interval” to you), most people went out to the corridor, where refreshments were on sale. All the corridors around the concert hall have thousands of metal strips hanging from the ceiling, which I imagine must have something to do with dampening the acoustics. (Or do they have some other function that I am not aware of?)

Sound lock to enter the large concert hall

To enter the Grand Salle from the corridor, you have to go through a sort of sound-lock, like an air-lock in a space ship, similar to the ones in the opera house in Lyon, which was also (re-)designed by Jean Nouvel.

Looking back towards Philharmonie 2

Looking back from the terrace towards the Cité de la Musique, a large building from the 1990s which is now known officially as Philharmonie 2. (I don’t know if this new name has caught on locally. Often people just ignore the new names and go on using the old ones.)

In 2006 I went to a concert there, and also visited their attractive and informative music museum. 

Cité de la Musique, now Philharmonie 2 (photo from 2006)

The concert I attended at La Villette was in the “Amphitheatre” (which is down in the basement, actually) of the Cité de la Musique.

The Amphitheatre before the concert

It was pleasantly cool down there, by the way, on such a hot summer day.

Seating in the Amphitheatre

This concert was held at 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning, and was part of a festival called musikalia. The musicians were a flutist, a clarinetist, a pianist, a harpist and a string quartet, playing chamber music works for various combinations of instruments by Debussy, Calpet, Ravel and also by the contemporary French composer Eric Tanguy, who was in the audience and came up to make a few introductory remarks before his Second String Quartet was played.

The musicians taking their bows

My photos in this post are from 2006 and 2015. I revised the text in 2017.

See more posts on concert venues.

5 thoughts on “Philharmonie de Paris”

  1. Many years ago we went to a concert at the Madeleine with Patrick Gallois on the flute. He was excellent but the acoustics there weren’t so good.

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