The truth about those French orchestras

My article reporting Claudio Abbado’s negative views on French orchestras certainly generated a lot of attention, including a response from Parisian Antoine Leboyer which corrected the myth that Abbado hadn’t actually conducted a French orchestra. Too much attention is given to British and American orchestras here On An Overgrown Path and elsewhere, and I was delighted when Antoine offered to give an inside view on the musical health of the French capital. So here is a guest blog from Paris with the truth about those French orchestras that Claudio Abbado and Daniel Harding love to hate:

Let us put things in perspective with a few words on French orchestras. Abbado may not have had the best of experiences, and he may still not find it perfect today but things are improving. Paris has many orchestras (I do not know those outside Paris well, and cannot comment on them; I do have regards for the Lyon Orchestra which played some great concerts when David Robertson was their music director):

Paris has a number of orchestras. The best known are L’Orchestre de Paris whose music director Christoph Eschenbach (below) also conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra, and L’Orchestre National de Radio-France whose music director Kurt Masur also works with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. There is also the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France whose music director Myung Whun Chung used to conduct the San Cecilia in Rome (I assume you can see the pattern there ...), and L’Orchestre de l'Opéra de Paris. The opera orchestra has had no music director since Hughes Gall retired as the Opéra's General Director and Gerard Mortier took over. James Conlon was music director and has not been replaced, more about this later.

Then, you have the
Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, Paris's ECO, their music director is John Nelson, and the Ensemble Intercontemporain, music director Susanna Malkki (yes, French orchestras can be conducted by a woman). Also there are venerable teams such as the Orchestre Colonne or Orchestre Lamoureux which I am sorry to describe as Saturday afternoon orchestras.

As a rule, French musicians are better as individuals than ensemble, largely because there is no school tradition in the strings section in the way that you have in say the German speaking countries. This means strings playing is often very sloppy (to be fair, I have the same concerns with English orchestras), and orchestral playing lack distinctive color (unlike German, Austrian, Russian, Dutch and most American orchestras). The French are individualists this is part of the culture, as confirmed by Richter's comments on the Paris Orchestra in
Monsaingeon's book. But some outstanding musicians do still come out of French music schools, conductors and instrumentalists.

But to make things more difficult, no very difficult, Paris lacks the good concert halls which are so important to create good ensemble. At the time Abbado conducted the Orchestre de Paris, they were playing in the
Palais des Congres. This hall is now used by musicals like Cats, and fortissimi were near impossible. The orchestra then moved to Salle Pleyel which has better acoustics although it is a noisy hall with many limitations. The Salle Pleyel turned private as part of the Credit Lyonnais Financial debacle. The owners had a disagreement with their resident orchestras (I do not have the details), and the hall was closed for repairs and will reopen this season. All Parisian music lovers are anxiously waiting to hear how the new Hall will sound. From a musical standpoint, the number one problem with the acoustics at Pleyel is that the strings are often drowned by the winds. In these conditions how can balance be achieved and Orchestra learn to improve their sounds ? The Orchestre de Paris has played for the last years in the gloomy Théatre Mogador, better known for Elvis musicals (again), and they rehearse in another one. I went to hear Boulez conducts a Janacek program there and the hall acoustics just could not handle it. The players' patience is just miraculous and they have my full sympathy. In a good hall and with a conductor they like, they can have genuine moments of greatness.

There are three other halls. One is the
Theatre des Champs-Elysees, known as the place where Stravinsky's Rite was created. It has been refurnished from memory around ‘88 and has lost much of its reverberation. I remember a Vienna Philharmonic concert where James Levine stepped in at the last minute to replace Carlo Maria Giulini. They had not rehearsed in the hall because of the changes and often the mighty Viennese strings were short of bow. This hall is where the French National Radio play their best I think. Another one is the Théatre du Chatelet, which is a great place. But there are two problems for orchestras. First the hall has a strong focus on Operas and Ballets so there are few slots for Orchestras. Secondly JL Brossman, who was the manager has retired, and he has been replaced by a new administrator who has lost the whole concert season to Pleyel. The last hall is the Cité de la Musique, which has Boulez's support, and is a really good although small venue. But the real difficulty is that it is at the periphery of Paris and going there is a journey - Boulez (above) once arrived late because of bad traffic! There are talks of building a new large concert hall there; I will believe it when I see it ...

Unfortunately the Paris Opéra is another major problem. The state of the place after the Liebermann era was a disaster (administrators came and go; strikes were the norm, no music director, ...). Volumes have been written on the Bastille and government's mismanagement and fussy interventionism (people forgot that Barenboim was ready to become their musical director; the government appointed administrator did not wanted to relinquish artistic decisions to Barenboim and got him sacked; Yes, French bureaucrats fired a conductor who right after was signed up in Chicago and Berlin and who could become the first conductor to receive a Nobel Peace Prize ... ) At the time the joke was that the difference between the Titanic and the Paris Opéra was that there was an orchestra on board of the Titanic ...

Bastille is a hall that allows for several productions to be staged and rehearsed simultaneously, unlike the old Palais Garnier. The previous management of Gall and Conlon deserves high praise for rebuilding what was an artistic and money-losing wreck into a strong Opera House with good versatile programs and strong productions. The new administator Gérard Mortier has recognised the good work of the previous team, and has made two major changes. He has not appointed one music director but has asked his friends to come regularly, "friends" being Gergiev, Salonen, Nagano, Dohnanhyi and Cambreling, and he has made some acoustic changes to the Hall (which is too big) and in particular has raised the orchestra pit so that better balance could be achieved. The bass-cellos section, which could be simply inaudible, is now better balanced. So far, the results show significant progress and hope.

At the time Abbado conducted French orchestras the situation was not good. There were frequent strikes among musicians, and the concert halls were terrible. The situation is now more stable, genuine progress is taking place now although it is yet an unfinished journey. What I would like to see is a long term strategy to give French Orchestras a stable working environment by. This would mean having long-term contracts between orchestras and halls where they can play and rehearse. Young conductors would be encouraged to stay for the long-term and build ensemble playing. If the French really want to develop French conductors there is a great generation of conductors in their forties who are doing great things outside France. I know several of them who have families and would like a stable place where they could raise their kids. They include Pascal Rophé who is taking over the Orchestra in Liege, and Philippe Auguin, who was an assistant to Karajan and Solti and who conducts regularly at the Met, Covent Garden and la Scala, not to mention the Louis Langrée and Bertrand de Billy (photo above) ... they are all so active outside of France.

And, of course, we also need to ask the politicians not to interfere.

Antoine Leboyer writes at where he has just published a review in French of 'The Toughest Show on Earth', Joseph Volpe's account of his years at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

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Mortal defeat for the mob in Paris


Pliable said…
Laurent, many thanks for your comment, it is appreciated.

For me, it is just rewarding to have an intelligent, and civilised, discussion taking place about music outside the UK and US.
Pliable said…
From a blog that is new to me, and is well worth visiting - Monotonous Forest

Thinking about acoustics again

The estimable On An Overgrown Path has a well-written comment on the state of French orchestras, contributed by Antoine Leboyer, that focuses on the dearth of acoustically viable halls in Paris. This is no small factor in developing great ensembles (and attracting visiting ones), and good musicians deserve to play in spaces that show them at their best.

In the next few weeks I'm going to be sampling some of the Mostly Mozart concerts here in New York, most of which are in Avery Fisher Hall, which has once again been reconfigured, with the stage moved almost into the center of the hall. (It's clear that onductor Louis Langrée has rethought many aspects of a festival that was in dire need of some new ideas.) I've already heard from some who think that thrusting the stage further into the room is a change that should be a permanent one. It will be interesting to hear the evidence.

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