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INTERVIEW: CHRISTOPH ESCHENBACH

AND

A LOOK AT THE NEW SALLE PLEYEL

 

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 28 December 2006—Since its inauguration on October 18th, 1927 when it was said to be the finest concert hall in the world, the Salle Pleyel, situated near the Arc de Triumph in Paris, has had more than its share  of disasters. Designed by the architect Jean-Marcel Aubertin, the auditorium, seating 3000, boasted all the latest and best in acoustics. But the triumph of the opening concert was to be short-lived as the building was ravaged by fire less than nine months later, and the subsequent reconstruction shoddy due to the slump of 1929. The "new" acoustics were poor, and the audience subjected to an echo and a distortion of sound, particularly in the back ten to fifteen rows. It was dark, narrow and dreary.

Unlike countries such as Germany or even the United Kingdom, France has no musical tradition or education in schools. French orchestras have long been considered second rate and the orchestras such as Colonne and Lamoureux have done little to enhance their reputation.

The Orchestre de Paris, conducted  by such prestigious names as Munch, von Karajan and Solti, came into being in 1967,  followed by the creation of the Choeur de l'Orchestre de Paris by Daniel Barenboim barely ten years later. Musically, things looked up, but the concert hall, despite further renovations in 1980/81, continued to be constantly denigrated, not only by the general public, but also by the musicians who played there, who generally described it as being a "black hole with bad sound". A period of unrest began with the departure of Barenboim, and a slow downward slide began, culminating in 1998 when the building was closed and  put up for sale. Major renovation work by the new owner did not begin until 2004.

Whatever then possessed Christoph Eschenbach, a man whose passion in life is music, conductor of not only all the great American orchestras, but also of the London Philharmonic, the Staatskapelle of Dresde, and the philharmonic orchestras of Berlin, Munich and Vienna, to accept the post of musical director there in 2000?


Christoph Eschenbach
Photo: Eric Brissaud

"I accepted the post because I knew that it was a wonderful orchestra", the gentle, softly-spoken German-born conductor told me the day after a beautiful concert of Mozart, where he himself interpreted the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No 23 in A Major, followed by exciting interpretations of Ravel's Bolero and Roussel's  Bacchos and Ariane, a magnificent but infrequently played work.

"However, there was a lot of work to be done, particularly as regards discipline", he smiled. "It was not only a case of perfection knowing no limit. The musicians needed to be given a focus.  I'd been warned that the orchestra was very individualistic and difficult, but it was precisely that which attracted me. It was important to me to get them to express what they wanted to say. I don't like insignificant grey masses!"

"I worked on developing their personalities to see what I would get back in return, and the result was spectacular. I love their differences and use and encourage them." 


Orchestre de Paris
Photo: Jean-Baptiste Pellerin 

"Their average age is only about 35", he continued, "our youngest member being 18, and they are all very talented. Now, they all openly love music; they live for music and feel highly privileged, which is how it should be. Moreover", he continued, "it's one of the very few orchestras where all the sections are so well-balanced in quality. We don't have a "second" violin or trumpet. Each musician is first class. And that is rare. We are a world-class orchestra, and need only to be known internationally."

He also spoke of the four difficult years he spent with the musicians in the Mogador, an old, ill-kept vaudeville theatre in the centre of town. The sound there was so appalling that they had to "force" their music and although they tried to keep their repertoire as varied as possible, certain works were impossible to perform. In addition, life in general was troublesome, with cramped, lugubrious quarters, but the conditions, he pointed out, merely helped forge their relationship and each kept up the other's musical morale.

"We survived", he said, "and we knew better days lay ahead. I appreciated their reaction to a difficult situation very much, and look at us now! I'll never forget our first rehearsal here. Everyone was so amazed by the light, airy auditorium, clean, clear, with such wonderful acoustics that we had to learn again how to play pianissimo. All of a sudden we could explore all the colours which we did on our opening night with Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2, a score which demonstrated every detail of the acoustics of the new hall. It was wonderful, and the orchestra adjusted like magic to the new sound and all the possibilities we'd been given."

The transformation is indeed spectacular. With an initial budget of 27million euros, priority was given to the acoustics and to the general comfort of public and musicians.

Work began in January 2005, when the false ceilings were knocked out, giving greater height and volume to the auditorium, while two single rows of balcony seats were built on either side which throw back the sound. The twelve rows of seats situated in the orchestra stalls under the balcony were eliminated, and the general number of places reduced to 1913. Made of a warm, red burgundy-coloured fabric with light beech wood, the seats are considerably more comfortable than before, with more space around, and most seem to have good visibility as they curve slightly round.


Salle Pleyel
Photo: Archives Pleyel

The stage itself,  moveable, is further forward than it used to be, and has been constructed in pale oak, while 160 highly popular places behind the orchestra enable music lovers to see the conductor's face whilst perhaps feeling they are part of the orchestra itself!   Even the original parquet floor was entirely renovated. However, the most successful renovation concerns the imposing main entrance hall, restored to all its art-déco glory, with high cream coloured walls and columns edged in gold. The floor mosaic, destroyed in 1994, has been reconstructed in black and white stone, trimmed with gold. Not least, the public now benefits from a vast modern foyer behind the stalls, with floor to ceiling windows looking out over the rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré.


Salle Pleyel
Photo: Archives Pleyel

As far as the orchestra is concerned, they now enjoy modern comfortable dressing rooms where they can hang their smart Jean-Louis Scherrer suits. The whole orchestra is as elegantly dressed as their trim resident conductor, with collarless long black jackets over well-cut trousers. It might be a minor detail, but what a welcome one! The women will have to wait until January for their selection of haute couture dresses, skirts and pants .

Christoph Eschenbach's one regret is that the orchestra is not yet known on an international level, which, considering the incredible work he has accomplished the last 6 years is certainly a matter of time. He told me that the orchestra was going to Germany and Holland early next year, with a trip to China later, but that more tours were needed as well as more recordings. It seems time for the rest of the world to take a second look at one of France's leading orchestras.

Forthcoming highlights of the current season at the Salle Pleyel include:

9 January 2007  at 20 h
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis, conductor
Mozart, Elgar

29 January 2007 at 20 h
Guarneri Quartet
Alain Planès, piano
Mozart, Janacek, Schumann

31 January, 1 February 2007 at  20 h
Orchestre de Paris
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor
Mahler: Symphony No. 6

3 February 2007 at 17 h
Argerich Weekend
Improvisations and Transcriptions for Piano
Martha Argerich, piano
Gabriela Montero, piano
Mirabela Dina, piano
Mauricio Vallina, piano
Montero, Dina, J.S. Bach, Bach / Kempff, Bach / Liszt, Bach / Brahms, Bach / Petri

3 February 2007 at 20 h
Argerich Weekend
Martha Argerich, piano
Gabriela Montero, piano
Mirabela Dina, piano
Mauricio Vallina, piano
Gidon Kremer, violin
nn : cello
Kremerata Baltica
J.S. Bach

4 February 2007 at 17 h
Argerich Weekend
Martha Argerich, piano
Gabriela Montero, piano
Mirabela Dina, piano
Mauricio Vallina, piano
Gidon Kremer, violin
Kremerata Baltica
J.S. Bach

14, 15 February 2007 at  20 h
Orchestre de Paris
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor
Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin
Stravinsky, Beethoven

Salle Pleyel
252, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré
75008 Paris
France
Tel: (33) 1 42 56 13 13

Orchestre de Paris Web Site

Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor at Culturekiosque.com



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