Barcelona for the senses

Built in 1847, the Liceo is the oldest of Barcelona’s three major houses of music. It was extensively restored after a 1994 fire destroyed the stage, ceiling and seats.
(ANDREU DALMAU / For The Times)

Painters such as Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró and architects such as Antonio Gaudí have given this city a reputation as a center of European art. Less known is its role as a musical metropolis. But Barcelona, the capital of the Spanish region of Catalonia, has produced as many virtuoso musicians as artists, and its three houses of music -- the Liceo, the Palau de la Música Catalana and L’Auditori -- are a delight to patronize, or merely to behold.

The musical history is distinguished. Pablo Casals, the renowned cellist, founded and directed the Barcelona Symphonic Orchestra until the Spanish Civil War sent him into exile. Pianist Alicia de Larrocha debuted at the Palau de la Música Catalana, a showpiece of art nouveau architecture, at age 7. Until recently, when Madrid’s Teatro Real began staging operas, the Liceo served as the only major opera house in Spain. Singers Victoria de los Angeles, José Carreras and Montserrat Caballé, all born in Barcelona, made their debuts at the Liceo.

The Liceo has become so popular that it is difficult to obtain a ticket without a season subscription. The modern L’Auditori opened as the new home of the Barcelona Symphonic Orchestra three years ago.


For a traveler in Barcelona, the city’s three music houses offer special musical, architectural and historical experiences. Even if a sightseer does not have time for a concert, the buildings themselves are well worth a visit.

The oldest is the Liceo, which opened in 1847. It is officially known in Catalan, preferred over Spanish by the regional government, as Gran Teatre del Liceu (Grand Theater of the Lyceum), but most people use the shortened version of its Spanish name and call it the Liceo.

Its inner public rooms, like those of most European opera houses of the mid-19th century, are sumptuous. A 1994 fire, started by a workman, destroyed the stage, ceiling and seats of the auditorium. The rebuilding took five years and restored the public spaces to their original elegance. It is wondrous to ascend the red-carpeted marble staircase, wander into the ornate Salon of Mirrors with its ceiling paintings, golden chandeliers and classical columns, and gaze upward at the five gilded balconies and the allegorical paintings overhead.

The 2,300-seat Liceo offers an array of opera, ballet, concerts and recitals every month except August. Opera is the mainstay; its ambitious operatic program for the 2002-03 season includes Henry Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen,” Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos,” Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades,” Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” and “Die Walküre” and Verdi’s “Aïda.”

The Palau de la Música Catalana is the most breathtaking of the three music houses, a stunning work of art nouveau -- a flowery architectural and decorative style marked by whiplash curves, natural forms and nationalist symbols. The style prospered at the turn of the 20th century. Given various names in different cities -- it was called modernisme in Barcelona -- the style was derided as excessive for many years but has returned to favor recently.

The best-known artist of modernisme was the Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí. The Palau de la Música Catalana, completed in 1908, was designed by one of his contemporaries, Lluís Domènech i Montaner. Like several of Gaudí’s buildings, the Palau has been declared a World Heritage Site by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.


I attended a performance by the London Symphony Orchestra one night last season and watched many of the musicians gape in astonishment as they filed onto the stage. The decoration of the auditorium is so lavish that it defies the imagination of anyone brought up in the functional concert halls built later in the 20th century. Wagner’s Valkyries on horseback, carved in white pumice, storm across the proscenium. Muses, carved in stone and dressed in mosaic, play their instruments on the wall behind the stage. A stained-glass dome shines down on the audience.

I recently took one of the guided daytime tours of the Palau and found it unusually informative. Moreover, a daytime walk reveals how Domènech i Montaner fashioned the stained-glass windows and dome to bathe the interior with glistening sunlight. A concertgoer can’t see this at night.

The façade of the Palau is almost as ornate as the interior. There are an array of towers, an egg-shaped dome, mosaic columns and busts of Bach, Beethoven and other composers. It is crowned by an extraordinary mosaic mural of the singers of the Orfeó Català, the Barcelona choral group that originally commissioned the building and that still sings there.

The theater was renovated and enlarged in the 1980s. Additional reconstruction, scheduled for completion in 2003, will include a piazza for outdoor concerts.

The Palau offers more than 300 performances a year (though, like the Liceo, none in August) in its 1,970-seat concert hall and is the main venue for visiting orchestras and soloists. The 2002-03 season will include performances by the Vienna Symphony, the Royal Philharmonic, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the London Symphony, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Bolshoi Orchestra and Chorus.

L’Auditori, the newest concert hall, is completely different from the others. Designed by José Rafael Moneo, the Pritzker Prize-winning Spanish architect who also designed the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, L’Auditori is a rectangular complex clad in slabs of dark oxidized steel and fitted with interior walls of light maple. There is no decoration in the 2,170-seat auditorium. Yet this hall has a beauty of its own as it fans outward and upward under a wonderful maple ceiling.


L’Auditori was created as part of a vast public works program started by Pasqual Maragall when he was mayor of Barcelona. Using preparations for the 1992 Olympics as his pretext, Maragall commissioned a host of projects. These included a new airport, a museum of contemporary art, the opening of several miles of beachfront, a massive housing development by the sea (used first by the Olympic athletes), a marina surrounded by seafood restaurants and monumental outdoor sculptures by Frank Gehry, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg and others. Some projects, L’Auditori among them, were delayed until after the Olympics. L’Auditori opened for concerts in 1999 but awaits completion of a chamber music hall.

Barcelona needed L’Auditori as a home for its major concert orchestra, the Barcelona Symphonic Orchestra and National Symphonic Orchestra of Catalonia. It performed at the Palau for many years, but that theater was so busy that the orchestra had difficulty scheduling time for rehearsals. Having L’Auditori as a home has evidently helped strengthen the ensemble. Los Angeles-born Lawrence Foster, who directed it for the last seven years, took it on well-received tours of the United States and Europe last season. After its concert at Washington’s Kennedy Center in February, Washington Post critic Joseph McLellan wrote that “the orchestra’s claim to rank among Europe’s major ensembles ... seemed well justified.”

The orchestra will have a new director this season, Barcelona-born Ernest Martínez Izquierdo, with Foster as a principal guest conductor. Izquierdo has developed a reputation in Barcelona as a champion of contemporary and Catalan music.

The orchestra has scheduled 80 concerts for the season. The highlight may come in April when Radu Lupu is soloist for all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos during a three-day weekend. Foster will conduct.

Barcelona cannot boast an orchestra of the majesty of those of Berlin and Vienna. Nor can it attract as many visiting virtuosos as New York and London.

But the range of its musical programming is as ambitious as that of Paris. The variety of its operatic season rivals that of La Scala in Milan.


And, even more important for those who admire great architecture as well as music, I know of no city in Europe that can match the visual beauty that accompanies the sound in Barcelona’s three unique palaces of music.

Stanley Meisler is a former Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent.