As audiences age, classical music is on an endless cycle of self-reinvention

The Philharmonie de Paris is the latest music complex trying to recruit a broader audience

Boyd Tonkin
Friday 23 January 2015 11:43 GMT

This week, director Jude Kelly and head of music Gillian Moore launched the 2015-2016 classical music programme for the Southbank Centre in London. They know that, for once, they have some serious competition across the Channel.

From the annual Sounds Venezuela seasons with conductor Gustavo Dudamel and his nation’s electrifying orchestras to the trailblazing Rest is Noise festival of the 20th century, Moore has accelerated a drive to make music beside the Thames more open, diverse and accessible. Three-quarters of attendees at Rest is Noise events had not bought classical tickets for the complex before. With the BBC Proms equally dedicated to outreach and eclecticism, London has – despite the perennial anguish of funders over the predominance of silver heads and privileged postcodes in the audience – done more than most world cities to open the concert-hall doors.

Now it has a stylish and ambitious challenger. A week after terror struck Paris, François Hollande opened the Philharmonie de Paris music complex. The President even managed a gag or two, boasting that the Germans couldn’t have built it cheaper. Maybe: the architect Jean Nouvel’s great curved beast of a hall arrived with a price tag of €381m (£292m), well over budget.

Hollande promised that the new multi-auditorium campus, rearing up beside the existing Cité de la Musique in the Parc de la Villette, would offer visitors “the best of music for the price of a cinema ticket”. The President struck another timely chord when, in the wake of this month’s murders, he praised French culture’s “capacity to renew itself when what really matters is at risk”.

From the evidence of the all-French opening gala, the renewal will justify the bill in musical terms. Some buffs grumbled that the quality of sound in the 2,400-seat hall – engineered by the New Zealand super-acoustician Sir Harold Marshall – varies according to your seat. Cheaper may even be better. Many agreed with Marshall Marcus (director of the European Union Youth Orchestra, and former head of music at the South Bank) that “the other two alpha+ cities of London and New York will – for now – only be able to look on with envy”.

Above all, like every similar venue, the Philharmonie needs to recruit a much broader public. As its president Laurent Bayle said, the complex “stretches out its hand towards greater Paris”. Rising from the park like some friendly hi-tech dragon, it beckons across the Boulevard Périphérique – the Paris ring-road – to the poorer, multi-cultural banlieue beyond. Will the banlieue take up the invitation?

In a format familiar to South Bank or Proms habitués, the opening season mixes showcase visits from major-league bands and soloists (Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony, Lang Lang, Daniel Barenboim…) with themed weekends: science fiction, David Bowie, Indian classics, musicals, jazz, flamenco.

Laurent Bayle, like his counterparts, grasps that “the danger for music is the ageing of the public and the homogeneity of the public”. The median age of classical audiences often scores in the mid-late 40s. Whatever the innovations, that seldom seems to shift much. Last year, the Iranian-born harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani advised anxious schedulers (in The Gramophone) to “forget the matter of grey heads. It’s a matter of white faces”. As it mingles Western repertoire with ragas, hip-hop or electro-pop, and reaches out across the ring road with school and family projects, the Philharmonie will try to correct that bias.

So the South Bank at last has a proud and well-funded rival, two hours away by train. Last weekend, the Philharmonie hosted 30,000 visitors for its inaugural weekend; 45,000 over the first five days. But how many of those who dip a toe will return for a regular plunge? One study found that, in 1937, the median age of concert-goers in Los Angeles was … 28. Now there’s a target that might reduce both London and Paris to dumbstruck silence.

Humour is the best riposte, Ms Hidalgo

Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist Mayor of Paris, was on fine rhetorical form at the opening of the Philharmonie. Speaking up for unfettered free expression, she insisted that “the cultural policy of Paris is not to proscribe but to permit”. That doesn’t, it seems, apply to Fox News. Flouting her Voltairean ideals, Hidalgo has now said her city will sue the Murdoch-owned sunset home for motor-mouth bozos because one “expert” claimed that Paris had all-Muslim no-go areas. “The honour of Paris has been harmed,” she whinged.

Anne, ma soeur: get over it. Instead, invite all those brave Parisian cartoonists to do their worst to Fox, and trump what Brummie wits achieved with its lies about their town. Take a tip from the 2015 intake at ENA, the postgraduate hothouse that incubates France’s future leaders. Every year, students choose a patron from the past. This time, they picked George Orwell.

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