“ City: Barcelona / Country: Spain / Region: Europe „
There are some magnificent buildings in Barcelona. The city's architectural heritage goes all the way back to Roman times and very possibly beyond, but its most notable flowering came at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
For Barcelona, this was the time of great commercial success and cultural self-confidence, often interwoven with Catalan nationalism. Catalans have always prided themselves on being more cosmopolitan and progressive than other Spaniards; indeed, many would take issue with the idea that they are Spaniards at all. With prosperity and the expansion of the city came the urge to express that progressive cosmopolitanism with a new architecture that drew on the latest ideas from elsewhere in Europe - such as art nouveau - but had a distinctively local stamp. The result was known as modernisme.
Best-known of the moderniste architects is, of course, Antoni Gaudi, designer of the La Sagrada Familia cathedral, but he was not the only member of the movement to display startling originality in his designs. Indeed, so startlingly original is the work of the three leading exponents (Gaudi, Montaner and Cadafalch) that it is questionable whether they can really be considered to constitute a cohesive 'movement'. One terrace in which three of their buildings sit almost side by side is informally known as the Mansana de la Discòrdia ('block of discord') because of the clash in styles. As so often, categorisation can serve to confuse as much as to clarify.
Personally, I like Gaudi's work well enough (though I find the Sagrada Familia much less appealing on close inspection than from a distance and less appealing than some of his smaller-scale projects). The modernista building that appeals to me most, though, is the Palau de la Música Catalana ('Palace of Catalan Music'), the concert hall completed in 1908 to the design of Lluis Domènech i Montaner.
* The Palau - first impressions *
To anyone who comes primed with expectations from photographs of the Palau's exuberant interior, the first glimpse of it from the outside may be a bit of a disappointment. This is not because the outside is without its own exuberant decoration - far from it, as you clearly see once close to - more because of the constricted site it occupies on a narrow street in Barcelona's old town, which prevents its full facade being visible until you are directly beneath it.
From the east, which is the best way to approach, your first glimpse is of the sculpture that adorns the corner of the building at first-floor height ('first-floor' as the British define it - the first one up, not ground level). This is carved from light stone and represents a stylised group of costumed singers fronted at the top by a Wagnerian warrior, with a scantily-draped female posed like a ship's figurehead below. The sculpture is almost neo-baroque in its stylised assertiveness, but is cunningly offset by the rounded red brickwork behind and unified with the colonnaded windows set into the walls to either side by an balustrade that runs beneath them.
Round at the front of the building you find your attention focussed at ground level on the main entrance, its rounded brick arches decorated with bright mosaic patterns, and the old ticket windows - now no longer in use - also surrounded by mosaics let into the supporting columns. The use of mosaic in bright colours and sinuous, mostly floral, patterns is another unifying feature, since similar work also clads the colonnades of the balcony and windows above the entrance. Higher still, this theme reaches its climax with a mosaic tableau set into the brickwork, but I have only seen it clearly on postcards. The sharp angle at which one has to view it, neck craning, from the street means that light from the sky reflects on the shiny surface and renders the design almost indistinguishible.
* New extension *
Beyond the flamboyant frontage the building merges into a more modern (1980s) extension in matching brick, but without the mosaic and stone additions. The brickwork itself, though, is discreetly and decoratively carved so as not to present too sharp a contrast. Behind it is a courtyard, used in summer as a terrace for the Palau's café and restaurant. The restaurant is part of the new extension, but the bar is part of the original fabric, although now screened off by a wall of glass that rises right up the side of the building.
This glass screening may sound quite out of character, but in practice works extraordinarily well. It stands a metre or two proud of the original wall, which is still supported by a line of pillars in the bar, leaving an empty space between the wall and the screen. This makes the bar a light and airy place to sit and enjoy a drink or snack, despite the dark wood and stained glass of its interior.
* The guided tour *
Having had our appetites whetted, not least by the drink and snack, my wife and I decided to take the guided tour of the Palau's interior. There are separate tours every day with commentary in Spanish or English. The price at 12Euro (10Euro for concessions) sounded at first a little on the high side, but the tour proved to be well worth it.
The tour begins in the small but elegantly proportioned Chamber Music Salon, located in the depths of the building beneath the stage of the main auditorium. Here we were given an audio-visual display explaining the Palau's historical, architectural and musical heritage. Architecturally, it was particularly interesting to learn that for its time the building was as futuristic in its structural engineering as for its décor, being one of the first to utilise a steel framework at its core around which to construct the walls. As for the decoration, we discovered a little about the notable artists and craftsmen with whom Montaner collaborated to such stunning overall effect: for example, the sculptor Miguel Blay - responsible among many features for the exterior cornerpiece already mentioned - and Lluís Bru, the master of mosaic.
Musically, we learned that although the Palau was built for the Orfeó Català, the Catalan national choral society, it was always intended to do much more than provide a venue for Cançó Popular, the local folk music. Rather, the ambition was to help make Barcelona a prestigious perfoming centre for leading exponents of every genre from classical to popular. Only major operas cannot be staged here, because there is insufficient room for both the cast and a full orchestra. The roll-call of distinguished musicians who have performed here is truly impressive; even I had heard of many of them.
From the Chamber Music Salon we were escorted up the imposing marble staircase - with coloured glass, ornate mouldings and mirrors everywhere around - to the Lluís Millet Hall. This is a large reception room relatively (only relatively) restrained in its own decoration, but from which one can admire at close quarters the beautiful mosaics that encrust the colonnades on the balcony outside its windows. After which, we were shown the main concert auditorium.
* The auditorium *
Never have I been more conscious that a picture would have been worth a thousand words, but alas this is not possible here. In any case, notices throughout the building expressly forbid the taking of photographs, and indeed I was prevented from doing so in the foyer by a security guard. However, I would recommend your taking at look at those on the Palau's own website (www.palaumusica.org) or the relevant page on Wikipedia. Meanwhile, I'll attempt have a stab at describing it in mere words, and try to restrain myself to fewer than a thousand.
Let's begin at the top, with the crowning glory of the stained glass skylight, shaped at its centre like an descending dome in brilliant oranges and yellows, and receding to flatness fore and aft as the colours transpose to mauves and blues. It looks, of course, like a sun amid a sky, an impression in no sense dispelled by the images of singers set into the sky. To either side, the ceiling is decorated with a moulded motif of lines of roses, as many blooms, we were informed, as there are seats in the auditorium. Floral themes are frequently found in the Palau, intentionally so since one of Montaner's declared objectives was to make it "a garden of music".
Similarly, the columns that rise up like tree-trunks to support the roof spread out as they reach in patterns like palm-fronds, with ceramic patterns to embellish them, maybe more flowers, maybe peacock's tails. Everything is embellished; need I mention that the columns are swathed in mosaics just like their counterparts elsewhere? Framing the stage, and almost arching over it, are jutting sculptures of heroic scale, with smaller counterparts at the rear of the auditorium - a winged horse soared above my seat when I attended a concert there.
All this elaborate decorative fare may be beginning to sound a trifle heavy and indigestible, but it is not. It is lightened, literally, not just by the skylight but by the windows that run right along both flanks of the hall on all three levels - there are two galleries as well as stalls - and on the top level above the stage. Such large expanses of glass were made possible by the pioneering use of steel in the structure and are exploited to the full. The glass is pretty in itself, with swirling art-nouveauish patterns, but above all admits a lot of light, so that the Palau is rare among concert halls in being able to stage daytime concerts without artificial light at all. At night, the ornamental candelabra that hang like tilted coronets around the columns come into their own.
There is also lighting above and behind the stage. At the top, the semi-circular windows are supplanted in the middle by the pipes of an organ, but any impression of churchiness is offset below, where the backdrop to the stage itself emits an almost pagan aura, decorated as it is by a mosaic and sculpture tableau of eighteen female muse-like figures, each playing a different instrument. The mosaic background is in deep red - though it looks much lighter under spotlights - whilst each of the figures is clothed in different colours and styles and flowery garlands hang between them. They appear to look down on the performers, as a permanent audience to and, one somehow feels, the ultimate judges of, what is being taking place on stage.
Forgive me if I have described the concert hall in what may seem such exhaustive detail; in fact I have left out much in the interests of brevity. This may make it sound an anarchic riot of contrasting elements, but in practice it has extraordinary balance and cohesion. Everything is emphatically ornate, seemingly not a square inch unadorned, but nowhere does it seem exaggerated. The result is simply one of the most beautifully decorated spaces I have ever seen.
* The bar and restaurant *
We did not go into the Palau's formal restaurant, El Mirador, though we did while in the bar read its menu, which looked appetising and not too exhorbitant in price. For our purposes, however, the food available in the bar itself proved more than adequate, and the ambience there is refreshingly free of pretension despite the ornate surroundings. Amid the stained-glass panels and painted stucco, the furniture is plain and functional, but comfortable enough.
Prices in the bar were reasonable too, much what you'd pay in any tapas bar around the city. It proved an ideal venue for a snackish meal preconcert in the evening. There is a kind of island bar in the middle of the room on which platters of finger food of all kinds are displayed, including a kind of Catalan open sandwich, available with a variety of toppings. These were, if I remember rightly, 2Euro apiece, or six for 10Euro; you walk around and choose your own selection. They're smallish, but six would be more than enough for most appetites. Go early if you want to find a table, though. On the evening we were there, by an hour before the performance it was packed.
* The concert experience *
So, you may be wondering, what did we go to see, or rather to hear, at this extraordinary venue? We could, during the four days we were in Barcelona, have opted for the Andorran National Classical Orchestra or the Bulgarian State Symphonic Orchestra or 'Percussions de Barcelona' performing various pieces, but our eyes were caught by an item in the programme that read: 'Kevin Costner and the Modern West Band'. We were until then entirely unaware that the film star Costner was also involved in music and we had to check at the box office before being convinced that it was the same person, as it proved to be. So bizarre did this seem that we decided to pass on the classical offerings in order to hear him. This may have been a mistake.
Tickets ranged in price from 18Euro all the way up to 98Euro, but all of those at the middle prices were sold out. We certainly weren't going to pay for 98Euro seats, so we opted for a position in the circle adjacent to them at 18Euro, the sharp differential being, we were told, because we would have a restricted view of the stage. In the event, this proved to be no problem because half the 98Euro seats were empty, and as soon as the lights went down we moved across into them, as did most of the other occupants of the cheap seats who could reach the more expensive ones in time. No one seemed at all self-conscious about doing so, and the ushers made no attempt to intervene, making me think that this mass migration was normal whenever the hall was less than full.
A similar attitude seemed to prevail towards photography. Despite the stern strictures against taking pictures, cameras flashed non-stop under the anonymous cover of darkness during the performance, including mine. I found, though, that coaxing a viable image out of my limited camera in such circumstances was an unrewarding struggle. But the flashes, together with occasionally roving spotlights, helped illuminate enough of the decoration to give one something to look at and to take one's mind off the music.
I wouldn't want to be too disparaging about the performance. Some of the supporting musicians - the violinist in particular - were really very good. Costner's repertoire is rock with a country admixture, rather conventional and derivative in my view, but lively enough. Many of the audience, notably the middle-aged females among them, seemed very enthusiastic, several clambering on-stage to express their admiration. I have never claimed to be especially discerning musically, so maybe they'd spotted something that I'd missed. "In my next life," said the man sitting next to me, with a twinkle, "I want to come back as Kevin Costner. I think my wife would like this too."
* Recommendation *
In my view, the experience was worth the money in any case, irrespective of the sounds emanating from the stage. The Palau is a delightful place to attend a concert, combining sublime architecture with an exhilarating atmosphere. I would heartily recommend it to anyone visiting Barcelona. If you can't fit a concert into your schedule, do think about taking the guided tour, or simply a drink or snack in the bar. The Palau is one of the great sights of the city, and shouldn't be missed.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK 2010