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New Paris Concert Hall Hopes to Link Rich and Poor Music Lovers


The Philharmonie de Paris, with cutting-edge design by architect Jean Nouvel, aims to broaden the audience for classical music. (REUTERS/Charles Platiau )

The Philharmonie de Paris, with cutting-edge design by architect Jean Nouvel, aims to broaden the audience for classical music. (REUTERS/Charles Platiau )

The new Paris Philharmonic concert hall opened earlier this year. Long before opening day, people questioned the large amount of money required to pay for the building. Critics also were concerned about where it would be built: far from the center of the French capital.

Now, the biggest problem is a social one. Can the concert hall influence a new generation of classical music lovers? Also, can it reach out to a working-class neighborhood?

In the French language, the new philharmonic concert hall on the edge of Paris is known as the Philharmonie de Paris. It is the home of the Paris Symphony Orchestra. Maybe more importantly, it is a brave social experiment. President Laurent Bayle says the aim is to sell classical music to young people, the poor and a mix of ethnic and cultural groups.

Parc de la Villette

The concert hall offers music that is usually linked to the city’s pricey neighborhoods – where rich people live.

But the Philharmonie is not located in the center of Paris. Instead, it is in an arts and science center in northeastern Paris called Parc de la Villette.

Large meat-processing centers operated on the grounds a century ago. Today, the park is a peaceful hideaway in an area filled with roads and working-class families. On weekends, you can find women wearing West African clothing pushing baby carriages. You also might see a group of Chinese working on dance moves or young families enjoying the spring sunshine.

Rap and world music stars perform at La Villette. Now, the Philharmonie is bringing classical music to the park, too. President Laurent Bayle says the goal is to reach a split in the Philharmonie’s public between Paris and its suburbs. He says he does not expect to win over the poorest and most difficult areas right away. There are inequalities -- differences that only French law can change.

Can it succeed?

The Philharmonie made news long before it officially opened. Building delays and money problems slowed work on the $417 million project. Today critics wonder how it can succeed when other European fine arts centers are closing.

But the Philharmonie is moving forward. Philippe Provensal is a spokesman. He takes visitors on tours of the building. They walk past an exhibit about pop music star David Bowie. There are also classrooms where people can learn to play any number of musical instruments. The cost of a class is only a few dollars per person.

Mr. Provensal says the goal is simple: music should be available to everyone in the best of conditions. It is not necessary to have years of training to play an instrument.

On the building’s top level, visitors can see a lot – not of Paris, but of the neighborhoods around it. To reach people in these areas, the concert hall keeps prices low on tickets for its performances. It also is setting up children’s orchestras in ethnically mixed and poor neighborhoods.

The goals of the Philharmonie may seem daunting -- nearly impossible to reach -- until you ask some young people what they think of it. Aymeric Makwanza is from Chelles, the kind of suburb that the Philharmonie is targeting.

The young man says he has not yet gone into the building, but he thinks the architecture, its design, is special. He says he has heard classical music before. So why not go to a show at the Philharmonie?

The heart of the Philharmonie is its concert hall. It looks like a large golden bowl, with a theater in the middle. It seats 2,400 people, but the feeling is friendly. Every seat is a good one, so everyone can enjoy the shows.

The Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra from Russia was playing one recent night. Piano student Yuchi Chang from Taiwan came to listen. She has attended performances here several times.

“It’s very new and modern, and the sound is very beautiful.”

To date, the Philharmonie is enjoying sell-out performances. But as the newness slowly disappears, critics suggest traditional, wealthier theater-goers may think twice before traveling to this working-class neighborhood.

President Laurent Bayle disagrees. Other projects faced similar criticism. At the end, he says, they were successes.

I’m Jim Tedder.

This report was based on a story from reporter Lisa Bryant in Paris. George Grow wrote it for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

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Words in This Story

concert n. a show or performance with musical artists

classicaladj. related to a traditional European, usually serious form of music

neighborhoodn. community; an area with people living near each other

park – n. public land that can be used for pleasure or exercise; the land is usually kept free of houses and other buildings

exhibit – n. a show or presentation

suburb(s)n. a neighborhood or community near a larger city

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