Barcelona is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, for a lot of reasons. It offers incomparable architecture, world-class museums, exceptional cuisine, great beaches and vibrant nightlife. Almost no one comes to hear classical music.

“Thatʼs what we want to change,” says Victor Medem. “So many visitors come because itʼs an attractive cultural city, we felt it would be logical to add a musical offering.”

Victor Medem
© Timm Kölln
Medem is the director of Barcelona Obertura, a joint initiative which brings together the city's most prominent classical music institutions, who had previously engaged in little mutual communication as to their programmes. The organisation has changed this, a notable example being the creation of the Barcelona Obertura Spring Festival, scheduled to debut in March next year. For two weeks, major stars like Leif Ove Andsnes, Diana Damrau and Valery Gergiev will fill Barcelona concert halls with some of the worldʼs most refined music. A supplementary schedule of 40 free concerts will introduce audiences to the cityʼs talented young players in offbeat venues like art galleries, old factories, even a former prison.

“If this works, people around the world will know that March is a great time to come to Barcelona,” Medem says. “And Barcelona residents will see that classical music can be a motor for the city.”

By almost any objective measure, Barcelona is already a very good place to hear classical music. The town boasts three outstanding venues that this coming season will host superstars like Sir András Schiff, Cecilia Bartoli, Mitsuko Uchida and Joshua Bell. The lineup of conductors is also stellar, with Thomas Hengelbrock, Vasily Petrenko, Pinchas Steinberg and Yuri Temirkanov topping a long and impressive list. Opera-lovers can take in I Puritani, Káťa Kabanová, Madama Butterfly, Les pêcheurs de perles and more.

The venues alone are worth a visit, in particular the spectacular Palau de la Música Catalana, one of the jewels of Catalan Art Nouveau and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Liceu Opera Barcelona is one of Europeʼs largest (capacity 2,300) and grandest opera houses, staging productions continuously since 1847. The Barcelona Symphony Orchestra makes its home at L’Auditori, a sleek modern facility that offers superb acoustics and three smaller halls for chamber music, contemporary music and student concerts.

Gran Teatre del Liceu
© Jordi Play
Nor does Barcelona lack tradition. Pablo Casals, Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg all spent productive time there, and Richard Strauss came many times to conduct. José Carreras is from Barcelona, and Jordi Savall and Cuarteto Casals currently make their homes there. So why the low profile?

Medem traces the problem back to the Spanish Civil War. “After Franco won in 1939, many people had to go into exile – especially the artists, who were not liked by the dictatorship,” he says. “Then we had almost 40 years of silence. There was musical activity going on, but not like before.”

In modern times, classical music in Barcelona has been hampered by a form of cultural gridlock. “We have three great institutions, but theyʼre all competing against each other for audiences,” Medem says. “You can survive doing that locally, but you will never attract an international audience.”

Medem, who has been working as independent arts manager and promoter in Barcelona for 10 years, started pitching the idea of a festival that would combine the resources of all three houses two years ago. “Everybody knows and trusts me, but it took a lot of diplomacy,” he says. “You have to be very careful that nobody thinks one side is winning over the other, or one place is benefiting more than another. Itʼs not easy to change that environment.”

Medem also worked the business community, emphasizing the advantages of an annual festival that cultural tourists could put on their calendar. “Itʼs not like people were enthusiastic at first,” he says. “But over time I was able to create a climate of confidence, and last November something finally clicked. Everybody realized we would be much stronger working together under the umbrella of Barcelona.”

Palau de la Música Catalana
© Palau de la Música Catalana

Planning has moved quickly since. An artistic committee of Medem and representatives of all three houses hammered out a program, and with the contacts they all had, were able to attract first-rate performers. Medem also reached out to travel agencies that specialize in cultural tourism, and was part of a group that traveled to Chicago, Tokyo, Seoul and other points around the globe to promote the festival at seminars and trade fairs. So far, the results have been promising.

“We already have a lot of groups confirmed from abroad, places like Switzerland, the Netherlands and Japan,” he says. “Actually, weʼre a little surprised that it started so strongly, because September and October is the time when most travel agents put up their catalog. So we think there will be even more reservations then, and feel codnfident that the final results will be very good.”

Travel agents told Medem that the festival would be an easy sell, and one glance at the  program is enough to see why. Itʼs not only sophisticated, but creative. Audiences will have three opportunities to see Andsnes and Matthias Goerne do Schubert at two different venues, and two nights to see Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra – at either L’Auditori or Palau de la Música – with Daniil Trifinov playing a different Rachmaninov concerto each night. The Liceu Orchestra and Choir is offering concert versions of two operas: Ambroise Thomasʼs 1868 treatment of Hamlet, featuring Diana Damrau and Carlos Alvarez, and Handelʼs Rodelinda with Bejun Mehta.

© Joan Altés
For quieter evenings, it would be hard to better recitals by Grigory Sokolov and Iréne Theorin, or a chamber trio of Daniel Sepec, Tabia Zimmermann and Jean-Guihen Queyras playing Beethoven and Mozart. And the festival will finish with a flourish. On the penultimate night, the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra is combining forces with Agrupación Señor Serrano, a Barcelona-based avant-garde theatre company, for a multimedia presentation of Beethovenʼs Symphony No. 9. For the finale, Jordi Savall and his ensemble will give the modern premiere of Vespres de Sant Jordi, an early music work by Catalan composer Joan Pau Pujol.

Most promoters would be happy with a strong inaugural effort, but Medem is already looking beyond that. “The first year will be a nice start, but I believe that the second and third years will be very strong in the sense that after youʼve done it one time, people start to believe you,” he says. “I think we have all the weapons. Barcelona is a very attractive town, thereʼs not much competition from other festivals in March, and people are always looking for something new. Why go to Salzburg or Munich when you can discover not only the music, but other great things here?” 

Ultimately, Medem hopes the festival will attract visitors not only in March, but throughout the year. “Already on our website we have highlights of the 2018/19 season posted, where for example in October you can come and see three fantastic concerts in one weekend,” he says. “March is a good moment to come. But anytime during the season is great to be in Barcelona.” 


This article was sponsored by Barcelona Obertura