On the île Seguin in southwest Paris stands the glass dome – half-beehive, half-space station – of La Seine Musicale. The architecture of this vast new music venue, constructed on the site of an old Renault car factory, makes reference to the island’s industrial past while promising a futuristic forum for classical and contemporary music. Designed by architects Shigeru Ban and Jean de Gastines, the dome is flanked by a rotating ‘sail’ of solar panels, filled inside with emerald mosaic walls and huge wooden beams, like the hull of a spaceship.
La Seine Musicale now plays host to Insula, the orchestra in residence founded in 2012 by its dynamic French conductor and artistic director, Laurence Equilbey. When I meet Equilbey, it’s clear her programme of music is a good match for her new home. The previous week, for instance, she had conducted a space-age production of Haydn’s choral work, The Creation, in collaboration with the Catalan theatrical collective La Fura Dels Baus. The production brought together Insula, her long-standing choir accentus, and La Fura, at times suspended from a two-tonne crane or incubated in an aquarium.
It’s magic with a lot of technology.
I ask Equilbey what effect these extra elements have on her well-established performances of Haydn. ‘It was really new for the eyes … For example, you have a beautiful passage with the sunrise, and the music alone is wonderful, no problem, but with this image of the planets, suddenly it was “wow”, together it matched.’
‘We have to change the language [of classical music],’ says Equilbey, ‘and I personally want to do a lot with technology.’ The result, on the evening I attend La Seine Musicale, is an accomplished performance of Mozart’s Mass in C-minor with a live screening of the action on a large panel behind the choir. As Equilbey is quick to recognise, innovations like these are sometimes a matter of classical music catching up with other live spectacles like pop concerts and football matches. But while the live projection included some impressive split-screen wizardry from film director Pascale Ferran – with up to 12 camera angles displaying at once – I found the constant switching between frames more distracting than absorbing.
In the grander scheme of Equilbey’s plans for La Seine Musicale, live video screening is small fry. As we talk she fizzes with ideas for collaborating with stage director Yannis Kokkos and cartoonists to bring live animation to a production of Mozart’s incidental music for Thamos, King of Egypt. And she has invited 14:20, the magie nouvelle (new magic) company, to collaborate on a production of Weber’s opera The Marksman. ‘It’s really incredible. It’s magic with a lot of technology. 14:20 work a lot with gravity – for example you have a chair, and the chair flies … and [they work] with holograms – it’s very beautiful.’
The sincerity of Equilbey’s ambition to update classical music is beyond doubt, but what is her motivation? A key answer, she tells me, is to attract younger audiences to classical music, and the faces at the Mozart weekend I attend are undeniably fresher. But as well as lowering the average age of her audiences, Equilbey is engaging young people in music education and programming through Insulab, a club of 17–28-year-olds which currently has more than 200 members.
Another reason for her modernising zeal, she says, is that after playing the same repertoire for many years, it can feel like they’ve said everything they have to say. ‘It’s like being a composer. I ask what can we do now? … I like very much the challenges and the risks.’ The technical challenges of staging a multimedia production with an aquarium and two-tonne crane are easy to imagine. At the same time, there is also the risk – which Equilbey never quite acknowledges – that the music gets lost behind all the gadgetry and innovation. But while Insula continues to deliver a high standard of period-instrument performance, you feel that Equilbey’s openness to experimentation will likely land on the right formula.
An on-demand stream of Haydn’s Creation is available to view on Arte.tv until 11 September.