Old Music In New Venue: Paris Puts Hall In The Seine

With its glass-panelled dome overlooking the Seine river in western Paris, the €170 million La Seine Musicale was
co-designed by architects Shigeru Ban and Jean de Gastines. (Laurent Blossier photo)
By Rebecca Schmid

PARIS — On the eve of the first round of presidential elections, the French capital inaugurated its third new concert hall since 2014. La Seine Musicale, part of a redevelopment project in the western suburbs on the former site of the Renault car manufacturer, escaped the attention of many Parisians. With its glass-panelled dome overlooking the Seine, the hall seems to take a hint from the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. “Life without music is a desert,” read a subway ad that depicted the building as a ship charging through the water.

Laurence Equilbey founded the Insula Orchestra. (Jana Jocif)

Out in the district of Boulogne-Billancourt, the mood was euphoric. “We are the future,” announced artistic director Jean-Luc Choplin in a pre-concert speech, which was projected onto a giant screen outside the hall. The €170 million ($185 million) building, co-designed by architects Shigeru Ban and Jean de Gastines, will serve both as a residence for the Insula Orchestra, founded by conductor Laurence Equilbey in 2012, and venue for electronic and rock concerts. Equilbey hopes to create synergy between Insula’s program and the other events, further building upon her mission to attract younger audiences.

At a time when many classical organizations are focusing on contemporary music as a vehicle for investing the art form with more relevance, the Insula Orchestra specializes in 18th- and 19th-century repertoire and even performs on period instruments. However, digital technology, theatrical formats and other surprise elements are also central to Equilbey’s vision. The inaugural concert of the orchestra’s auditorium on April 22 did not reveal all the works performed until after the concert and featured an actor (Nicolas Carpentier), who wandered around the stage with a construction hat under his arm. “Is it hard to learn [the instrument]?” he asked a violinist.

The 1,150-seat auditorium has acoustic design by Yasuhisa Toyota. (Nicolas Grosmond)

The combination of his rapid speech and the hall’s tendency to send sound upward, however, made it difficult to follow his lines. Like many halls built in recent years, the acoustic design is by Yasuhisa Toyota. The 1,150-seat hall offers his signature clarity but also a pleasant blend: The strings are full, the winds round. The acoustics do not offer the uncanny combination of plush resonance and transparency of the Philharmonie de Paris, however. And in smaller arrangements such as the excerpts from Mozart’s La finta giardiniera (here performed in the German version, Die Gärtnerin aus Liebe), which opened the program, the sound swam ever so slightly.

If there is a central reflector hidden above the wooden latticework that covers the ceiling, it is higher than that in both the Philharmonie and the Maison de la Radio France. That being said, the Insula Orchestra and a quartet of singers (Sandrine Piau, Anaïk Morel, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, and Florian Sempey) performed the opening chorus to Mozart’s opera, “Welches vergnügen, welch frohe Tage,” with taut, elegant phrasing and refined tone under Equilbey’s direction.

Period instruments and projections: Insula Orchestra opening night. (Julien Benhamou)

Attempts to make the music more accessible through visual means were not as successful as the musical performances themselves. During the aria “La tourterelle se languit” (yes,  mysteriously sung in French), Carpentier interrupted Piau: “Say something!” he exclaimed before going into a speech about women’s rights. Soon enough, the free-standing television screens onstage, blank until now, featured images of Simone de Beauvoir, a women’s march, and other topic-appropriate images. But the connection to the aria at hand was not clear, and the use of standard television screens rather than custom-built projection surfaces lent the presentation an amateur feel.

The Wolf’s Glen scene from von Weber’s Der Freischütz, in the version by Hector Berlioz, received more impressive treatment. The magnetic Sempey, as Caspar, stood onstage while Carpentier and the women’s chorus performed from the upper balconies to dusky lighting and projections across the ceiling. Equilbey expertly coordinated all the musicians, with particularly impressive phrasing in the low strings that shadowed the singers. The brass, however, was not as tight.

Beethoven’s Fantasy for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra closed the evening with all the energy and élan one could hope for, with particularly memorable performances coming from the sweet-voiced Piau, the meticulous pianist Bertrand Chamayou and the orchestra’s valveless horns. The final chorus, which foreshadows the “Ode to Joy” of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, was repeated as an encore.

An interior hallway with views of the Seine (Laurent Blossier)

Logistical challenges were apparent on opening night. There were not enough ushers to show people to their seats. The crowd was disoriented as it entered and left the auditorium, at one point snaking around a narrow, circular hallway. Views of the Seine through the dome’s glass façade are serene but cannot compete with those of central Paris.

And as visionary as it may be to follow the Insula Orchestra’s concert with an electronic program produced by The Avener in La Seine Musicale’s 6,000-seat venue (“Grande Seine”), it remains to be seen how well the different audiences mix: The space was too loud and crowded for this listener, at least, to stay longer than five minutes. And even if there are plans for a luxury hotel right next to the premises, many concertgoers will have a long subway ride back to the city.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.

La Seine Musicale sits on an island in the river — once the location of a Renault auto factory. (Olivier Revoire)