Arts & Culture Music

Barcelona Obertura

  • May 12, 2023
  • 4 min read
Barcelona Obertura

Barcelona has had its ups and downs over the last 200 years but is definitely in an up phase at the moment. Its three main music venues reflect its history with resonant accuracy. There’s El Gran Teatre de Liceu, the fine opera house on La Rambla, halfway between the sea and the business centre. It was built in the 1840s, the same decade as Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House and with much the same layout. It exudes confidence, the building of Barcelona’s new boulevards on a grid pattern like Haussmann’s Paris and the emerging New York. Barcelona, it shouts, may not have Spain’s government but it has the industry and the money. Then there’s Palau de la Musica, built by Luis Domencc i Montaner in 1908 with startling flamboyance sixty years later – an astonishing flourish of Catalonian Art Nouveau – its stage furnished with angels emerging from the wall as if they are about to take over the playing from the orchestra. It is part of the movement that also produced the eccentric brilliance of Antoni Gaudi and Salvador Dali.

Then there’s L’Auditori, the severe slab of modernism dumped on the edge of the centre close to the bus station in what is one of the city’s less glamorous districts – a symbol of the painful emergence from the Franco years when Barcelona had been treated as a dangerous challenger by the fascist regime in Madrid. That emergence, in the years between Franco’s death and the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, was a serious awakening after a long nightmare. The severity of L’Auditori’s concrete reflects this. Although it houses a fine musical instruments museum, a conservatoire (like the Barbican) and two halls, nothing about it suggests that hearing music inside might be enjoyable. It is an austere place for serious music.

While this might sound dispiriting, once seated inside, the mood changes. The night I went to the chamber hall, that sheer unadorned invitation to concentration was perfect for Bach’s Goldberg Variations, played complete without interval by a string trio in Dmitri Sitkovetsky’s wonderful arrangement by Abel Tomas, Jonathan Brown and Arnau Tomas. The instrument museum, by the way, has (as one might expect) a fascinating collection of guitars, from the very beginnings in the sixteenth century to the modern electric variety. It also has some eccentric early pianos, my favourite of which is an aide to composition that every composer should have: a writing desk from 1820 with a small flat piano in a drawer.

The three music venues have come together to promote their joint work as Barcelona Obertura (Overture), which means the city’s music programme can be coordinated into a series of mini-festivals through the year – some themed, some more a matter of convenient coincidence. A couple of nights after the Bach, Liceu Opera Barcelona was staging Olivier Py’s new production of Massenet’s Manon that – replete with bordello corsets and much dropping of trousers – could not be further from austerity, except for the moments when the monumental sets by Pierre André Weitz

hinted at the grey stone of the city’s Gothic cathedral. The orchestra at Liceu is excellent, especially when so sensitively conducted by Marc Minkowski. This is world class stuff!

The following night it was the turn of the Palau – full on a Sunday afternoon for Midori, the veteran Japanese violinist, playing Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. The Music Palace is not the largest concert venue in Europe but it has to be the most exciting to enter. The sheer fantasy of the decor and the interior architecture is breathtaking and the spirits lift the moment one walks in. It fits the flamboyance of Tchaikovsky perfectly.

If the music can provide a focus for a stay in Barcelona, there is always the pleasure of Catalan cuisine and wine. I was lucky enough to have lunch at its oldest restaurant, Can Culleretes, founded in 1786, which is neither pretentious nor absurdly priced and is still a firm favourite with the local political and artistic elite. A few streets away, past the City Hall and the Catalan Government headquarters, in the shadow of the ancient cathedral (not Gaudi’s never quite finished one), there is a hotel that goes for contemporary luxury over tradition. The Grand Hotel Central, on Via Laietana, is fastidious in its service, and has a rooftop terrace, which surveys the city from the mountains to the sea. It is the place where Barcelona’s young take their partners for cocktails and to impress by the infinity pool. Whatever one’s budget, the combination of Barcelona’s artistic vibrancy and its taste for good living makes it a constant delight.

Images: Paco Amate & Matteo Vecchi Palau

About Author

Simon Mundy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *