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Palau de la Música Catalana
John Robert Brown
At the heart of Barcelona's musical life stands the Palau de la Música Catalana, the Palace of Catalan Music. Built on a cramped site in the La Ribera area of Barcelona, this beautiful concert hall is located within the historically wealthy section of the medieval city. Sometimes described as the Soho of Barcelona , the location is on the edge of the Barri Gòtic, the Gothic Quarter.
The centenary of the Palau has been celebrated this year. This remarkable hall opened in May 1908, an extraordinary example of Catalan modernist architecture (art nouveau, known in other countries as jugendstil, stile liberty, or sezessionstil), so much so that in 1997 the hall was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
To be thus celebrated is especially remarkable when one realises that Barcelona is already richly endowed with outstanding architecture. First, the city is blessed by the presence of Gaudi's incredible Sagrada Familia, the cathedral of the holy family on which work began in 1882, which is still a building site, and for which completion is expected in 2026! Furthermore, the Ruta del Modernismo, a walking tour designed by the city's Centre de Modernisme, offers an itinerary containing no fewer than 115 of Barcelona's fascinating modernist architecture sites. These include not just the famous buildings like the Pedrera ('the quarry', also known as the Casa Milà) and the Casa Batlló on the Passeig de Gracia and shown in just about every postcard of Barcelona, but also shops - and even street lamps.
In what must be a unique arrangement, the Foundation of the Orfeó Català-Palau de la Música, a choral society, founded in 1891 with 28 singers and 37 patron members, owns the Palau de la Música Catalana. The Orfeó was a leading force in the Catalan cultural and political independence movement at the time of the hall's construction, an organisation that gave a new direction to popular choirs. Then, at the turn of the twentieth-century, Barcelona was a cultural melting pot.
Although the Orfeó is a society, it also collects money by way of a toll. For example, every seat in the Palau carries a donor's name. The hall's organ was also restored by civic and public donations. The organ is heard every day, when guided tours of the Palau take in the auditorium. The high spot of such a tour is to sit in the bright daylight of the auditorium, beneath the unforgettable stained glass inverted dome in the ceiling, and listen to an organ recital which demonstrates the clarity of the hall's acoustics.
Today, the musical adviser for the Orfeó foundation is Lluís Millet, whose grandfather was the founder, and father the director, of the Orfeó Catalá choir. As I'm from the UK, señor Millet reminds me that the composer Roberto Gerhard (1896-1970), Schoenberg's only Spanish pupil, well-remembered in Britain, was born in Barcelona. 'We think of Gerhard as a Catalan composer,' says Lluís Millet. 'Although in 1939 he settled in England, Gerhard's compositions of the 1940s were explicitly related to aspects of Spanish and Catalan culture.'
This distinction between Catalan culture and Spanish culture is clear, and most important. At one point in our conversation - we spoke in German - I mentioned that Millet had been speaking Spanish to his colleagues. 'No, I was speaking Catalan,' he corrects me. The distinction between the two cultures is ever-present.
Lluís Millet takes me into the administrative offices of the Palau at the top of the building. Here the Palau's concerts are planned and run. In an open-plan office space in the roof, desks occupy the area around a railed-off sunken section of floor that is the upper side of a magnificent coloured glass globe, the centre piece of the ceiling of the 2,200-seat concert hall below us. Effectively, this is a large skylight, the centre of which forms an inverted dome over the rectangular auditorium, the dome described as 'a giant droplet just about to fall from the ceiling', or 'one of the most remarkable works of stained glass art of our times'. The effect is such that the hall is claimed to be the only auditorium in Europe that is illuminated during daylight hours entirely by natural light. The globe is a symbolic sun that extends across the sky, surrounded by forty female faces. 'To listen to a concert in the Palau, in a matinee with natural light, is a mystical experience,' Spanish architect and designer Oscar Tusquets observes, in an excellent introductory video that is shown to all visitors who take the guided tour of the Palau. To Lluís Millet, that skylight has always been part of his life. What is now an administrative area was formerly a family dwelling space. 'I was born here, and lived here for 22 years," he says, gesturing to the office space around the skylight dome. 'This was my home.'
A list of '100 years, 100 dates' at the Palau begins with an inaugural concert given by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Richard Strauss in 1908. Other early twentieth-century concerts given at the Palau included performances by Pablo Casals (1908), Wanda Landowska (1909), Artur Rubinstein (1916) and Serge Prokofieff (1923). Alban Berg's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra received its world première here in 1936. In 1940, the world première of Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez took place at the Palau. Leonard Bernstein conducted the Vienna Philharmonic here in 1984. Performers love the hall. 'It's like a crown that surrounds you, embraces you,' says Montserrat Caballé, the Barcelona-born operatic soprano. Conductor Zubin Mehta has remarked: 'It's the joy of the atmosphere, also, the colour and the glass.'
Palau adviser Lluís Millet has no children. Now, three generations of his side of the family have been associated with the Palau. The brother of founder Lluís Millet was the president of Orfeó Català. Still the family provides musicians and managers. The current president of the Orfeó Català, Felix Millet i Tusell, is the cousin of Lluís Millet. They work together. Felix Millet i Tusell is also the president of the Fundació Orfeó Català-Palau de la Música, and of the Executive committee of the Consortium of the Palau de la Música Catalana. The Palau of today is the Palau of which Felix Millet i Tusell dreamed. His forward-looking approach has made it possible for the modern Palau to be ready for the challenges of the 21st Century.
'These are the offices of the foundation,' Lluís Millet says as he offers me a drink. 'The Orfeó choir is the owner. The foundation is private, but the Palau is a public organisation. Three administrations manage the building: Catalonia, the Barcelona City Hall and the Government of Spain. In part, money comes into the Palau from renting the facilities out to various public and private clients.' Today the Foundation of the Orfeó Català-Palau de la Música organises 150 concerts annually, distributed throughout the year. The concerts range from the very biggest orchestras and directors to concerts for children.
'Other people rent the Palau,' explains Millet. 'There's gospel music; there's flamenco - not organised by the foundation, but by other bodies. The foundation's main objective is to embrace the cultural life of Barcelona, to organise concerts here, and give life to the choirs. So we have a choir school here. Entry is by examination.'
Eleven metres deep beneath the square is the Petit Palau, a 538 seat auditorium, which was opened in 2004. Together with a restaurant and coffee shop on the ground floor, this enables the Palau management to be broad in its approach. For the Palau is not used solely for classical music. World famous non-classical artists have performed at the Palau. Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington visited in 1966. More recent non-classical artists to appear have included Woody Allen (whose latest film Vicky Cristina Barcelona is set in Barcelona), and the German singer and actress Ute Lemper. 'I've never seen anything like this,' she says. Gilberto Gil, the Brazilian singer, guitarist, and songwriter, known for both musical innovation and political commitment, recently appeared here. Since 2003, Gil has been serving as his country's Minister of Culture.
Millet emphasises that these non-classical concerts aren't organised by the Palau. Señor Millet speaks of concert attendances of 80% upwards. Some events are hugely popular; this year's Christmas concert was sold out by the time I visited in early September. Tickets for an appearance by the Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, scheduled to sing here in April 2009, had sold out by the summer of 2008!
'For us, the hall ranks alongside the Musikverein in Vienna, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, or the Royal Albert Hall in London', says señor Millet. Justifiably proud of the restorations and improvements made to the building during the last thirty years, Millet feels however that the Palau is still not as well-known - or as highly regarded - as it should be. Lluís Millet's current ambition is, therefore, to ensure that the Palau de la Música Catalana receives rightful recognition worldwide. One hopes that he succeeds.