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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The maestros who are making Paris a music capital, at last

By Norman Lebrecht / January 21, 2009

This may be a longer term forecast than you’ll get from most economists, but I’m ready to bet a Paul Smith shirt to a Primark that, by the end of this year, Paris will join Berlin, Vienna, London and New York as a classical music capital.

On the Richter scale of cultural relativities, this will be a major seismic event with global aftershocks, most significantly in London where deep-seated complacencies will be severely shaken. The British classical economy is in for a rude awakening, as the French renaissance looks to be unstoppable.

It has been exactly a century since Diaghilev and Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel, last diverted the world’s ears to the Champs Elysees. That power surge was ended by the First World War and has never returned.

Paris went on to erect monuments of varying degrees of uselessness - a soul-chilling Bastille Opéra and the subterranean IRCAM in which Pierre Boulez was meant to invent the music of the future. Famous maestros well past their peak were hired as music directors, and the public indifference was of such Gallic shruggery that it was possible for Andre Malraux, best-selling author and long-serving minister of culture, to declare without a blush that ‘France is not a musical nation.’

That is empirically no longer the case. By the end of 2009, Paris will have three of the most exciting new-generation conductors at its helm. Philippe Jordan, 34, has taken over at the Opéra, which has gone five years without a music director. At the Orchestra de Paris, Paavo Järvi, 46, an Estonian-American of great achievements in Frankfurt and Cincinnati promises a radical change of menu, while the national orchestra of France has poached from London’s Royal Philharmonic the high-octane Italian, Daniele Gatti, 47. All three ensembles have new managements and serious ambitions that are hinge upon the energies and varied abilities of their conductors.

Contrary to popular myth, however, maestros do not make a musical city. There has to be something else, something organic, for a metropolis to take its place among the world’s leaders, as London did in the 1950s and Munich is destined to do before long.

In the case of Paris, the driving force is a community of artists nurtured by three record labels which, in a multinational industry, have cultivated a distinct French style, forging an unspoken bond between performer and audience.

The largest of these labels, with 22 percent of the French market, is Virgin Classics, owned by EMI since 1996 but based in Paris under the control of Alain Lanceron, a veteran producer who trusts his own taste. Lanceron, who has just notched up the label’s 20th birthday, has first call of singers of the calibre of Natalie Dessay, the first French soprano to conquer America, as well as the countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, the Mozartians Vivica Genaux and Veronique Gens and the conductors Emmanuelle Haïm and Louis Langrée.

Lanceron’s soloists are the violinist Renaud Capuçon and his cellist brother Gautier, the startling young pianist David Fray and the Quatuor Ebène, which claims to be the cool quartet of the moment. These artists often work together or with Virgin’s foreign roster, which includes Paavo Järvi, Patrizia Ciofi, Daniel Harding and Ian Bostridge. Nowhere else in the record industry does this form of house ensemble still survive. Two other labels, Harmonia Mundi and Naïve, have yielded the cellists Jean-Giuhen Queyras and Anne Gastinel, the pianists Francois-Frederic Guy and Cédric Tiberghien and the early-music conductors Christophe Rousset and Marc Minkowski. Here, too, Frenchness is emphasised throughout, whether in the chic lines of an artist photo or the post-Lacanian obtuseness of the programme notes.

Playing the Francophone card in disregard of market and global realities has long been state policy in France, no matter which party is in power. Most French arts projects are richly subsidised and few artists need to worry about getting the next gig in a country where every small town has a cultural programme and festival. But what has given today’s artists the confidence to strut the world stage is the phenomenal support they receive from the French public.

Don’t count the curtain calls, what matters here is the ringing of tills. CD sales are falling all over the world and classical is facing wipeout – everywhere except in France, where there is an upsurge. Last year, classical accounted for nine percent of all French record sales – that is three times its UK proportion and six times the US share.

Classical, jazz and world music are regarded as fringe genres in most countries, no longer to be found in high street stores. In France they are absolutely mainstream and available in profusion. New concert halls are being built and old ones refurbished. The Cite de la Musique in Paris, a decidedly trendy hang-out, has taken over the management of the art deco Salle Pleyel, which has undergone an acoustic upgrade. There is a swagger of success around the classical music scene. By the end of 2009, with three new music directors in the box, Paris will be delivering the higher voltage stream of performances that London expects as standard.

Where that leaves London is unprepared and under siege. Two orchestras, the Philharmonia and LPO, have new conductors but any uplift is shackled by the heavy hand of the South Bank bureaucracy which controls concert dates and interferes at every juncture. The RPO, after Gatti, continues downhill. The LSO at the Barbican is marking time under an absentee music director. The two opera houses are doing well, but, with the box-office in recession, confidence is taking a knock.

With Paris two hours away by train and Bastille tickets at half the ROH price, the London opera and concert goer will find himself facing tough choices several times a season, and the city’s ranking as a music centre will be revised downward.

This is, of course, a worst-case scenario, darker than any immediate forecast. Paris is not yet in a position to tilt. It has no match to the BBC Proms, the Wigmore Hall and Glyndebourne. Its chauvinist bias reduces diversity and fosters, at times, an unpleasant supremacism. Too much subsidy attenuates the competitive edge.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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