The stage of the Palau de la Música Catalana © David Karlin
The stage of the Palau de la Música Catalana
© David Karlin

When, in December 2009, Xavier Cos stepped out to sing in Barcelona’s Plaça del Rei, his heart must have been thumping in his chest. A long-standing member of one of Europe’s most established choral societies, the Orfeó Català, he was acutely aware of how significant this concert was – not just for the choir, but for the building that had been its home since 1908. After becoming embroiled in an embezzlement scandal that had seen the Palau de la Música Catalana splashed across the front pages of every national newspaper in Spain, all those associated with the concert hall felt a keen sense of responsibility. They needed to earn back the trust of the Catalan community, and reclaim the humanitarian spirit upon which the institution was founded. Tonight’s concert, given freely to the people of Barcelona, was the first step in that healing process.

“I remember it being very emotional. We needed to show the difficulties that the institution was going through in order to heal our wounds. It was important to cleanse ourselves; it was important to be transparent with society.” In a documentary, broadcast on Spanish television earlier this month, Cos reflects on the circumstances surrounding the scandal. “The events caused uproar among the singers,” he explains. “Our institution, a place we love … was under a dark cloud.”

The person responsible for that cloud was Fèlix Millet, former President of the Fundació Orfeó Català. Between 1999 and 2009, Millet, along with the Palau’s de facto Director Jordi Montull, had been funnelling money through the Palau, facilitating an illegal kickbacks-for-contracts scheme between the Spanish construction company Ferrovial and the centre-right political party Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC). Over the course of a decade Ferrovial paid €6.6m to the CDC in return for public works contracts, whilst a total of €24 million went missing from the Palau’s accounts. Millet used his cut to fund an extravagant lifestyle whilst the Orfeó suffered under lacklustre management and paltry resources. “One of the main complaints from the singers was that they never got to do concerts anywhere else,” explains his replacement Mariona Carulla. “There were cuts all the time in singing classes, in trips out. Felix always said this was because there wasn’t enough money.”

Millet’s reign was cut short in July 2009 when, after an anonymous tip off, the Palau’s offices were raided by the Mossos d'Esquadra (the autonomous police force of Catalonia). Despite initial scepticism of his guilt (this man was, after all, the great-grandson of the Orfeó’s co-founder, Lluís Millet), the board of the Palau immediately installed Carulla in Millet’s place, and Joan Llinares – now director of Valencian Anti-Fraud Agency – was brought in as interim Director. 

Llinares set about quite literally piecing together the facts. “On that first day something set the alarm bells ringing. An employee came to my office and told me that the shredders hadn’t stopped running. So I ordered them to be unplugged … After several weeks, by putting the shredded documents back together again, we were able to obtain a file that we subsequently nicknamed the ‘Rosetta Stone of the Palau’.” When Llinares then discovered nearly €200,000 had gone missing from the office safe and a document detailing the distribution of money amongst the Millet family – “their expenses, trips to Menorca, horse-riding lessons” – he decided to call in external lawyers and auditors to help make sense of the growing scandal. This newly-assembled team would spend the remainder of their summer pulling 12-hour shifts, sifting through evidence and painstakingly documenting each cent that had passed through the Palau’s accounts.

The most shocking discovery came late one night after an Orfeó concert. Llinares had snuck back to his office for one last look over a series of documents that had been puzzling him and his team. These documents showed bank transfers worth €90,000 and €130,000 to companies that had worked on Catalan election campaigns, whilst another file contained a picture linking the Palau’s Ferrovial sponsorship to a series of transfers for the same amounts. In a eureka moment, Llinares matched the figures to a set of invoices assigned to one ‘Daniel’, who, after analysing Millet and Montull’s diaries, he was able to identify as the treasurer of the CDC, Daniel Osàcar. The scale of the discovery went beyond anything Llinares or his team had anticipated. Not only did it directly implicate the Palau and its sponsor Ferrovial, but also a political party partnered in a coalition that had dominated Catalan regional politics for the last 30 years.

The Palau de la Música Catalana © David Karlin
The Palau de la Música Catalana
© David Karlin

The “Palau Case”, as it became known, was just the first in a series of ignominies that would beset the administration of Catalan President and CDC leader Artur Mas. In 2014 Daniel Osàcar’s successor Andreu Viloca was arrested on charges of corruption and a year later an organisation linked to the CDC, Fòrum Barcelona, was investigated after it was discovered to have illegally accepted nearly €4m in private donations. 

But where Mas failed to excise those unscrupulous characters from within his party, Llinares saw in the Palau Case an opportunity for renewal. Once Millet’s operation had been fully investigated and those staff members suspected of collaborating removed, he asked the then Director General of L'Auditori de Barcelona, Joan Oller, to take the reins on the condition that he bring stability and trust back to the institution. This challenge he took up with great relish. “Musically and artistically there couldn’t have been anyone better,” recalls Carulla.

A slew of reforms soon followed, all part of Oller’s “Strategic Plan” to reinstate the founding values of the Orfeó: excellence, engagement, social responsibility and Catalan identity. The four separate entities that comprised the Palau’s complex business structure (the same structure that allowed Millet to play the system) were assimilated into a single Foundation. The Orfeó was placed once more at the centre of the institution: between 2009 and 2019 its annual budget was increased from €705,000 to just under €1.5 million. World-class performers and composers were invited to collaborate – Arvo Pärt, John Adams, Philip Glass, Sir Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim, Yuja Wang to name just a few. International tours were organised, and in 2016, much to the delight of the singers, Englishman Simon Halsey was hired as the new Artistic Director. “The arrival of Simon Halsey was another step forward”, Cos reflects. “He incorporated a different way of working with the choir and made it even more professional.”

Simon Halsey with the Orfeó Català © Ricardo Rios Visual Art
Simon Halsey with the Orfeó Català
© Ricardo Rios Visual Art

But perhaps the most important of Oller’s reforms did not address the Orfeó itself, but the community it serves. When the choir was founded in 1891, it was seen as an opportunity to bring together local, Clavé traditions with high culture. It is for this reason that the Palau was built in the Gothic quarter – where a great number of workers lived. Oller, recognising this, revised and expanded the Palau’s educational programme to include various social and community initiatives. A concert series for local performers and composers called “Intèrprets Catalans” was introduced. The hall was opened up to visual and literary artists like Antoni Tàpies, Eulàlia Valldosera and Santi Moix, and once a year the Palau hosts an “Open Doors Day” in which members of the public are invited to tour the building and take part in a choral workshop that culminates in a concert. The budget for the Orfeó’s choral school was also given a major boost, and a outreach programme – “Clavé XXI” – was created, facilitating workshops and lessons with the aim of encouraging social inclusion for young barcelonís. The project now boasts 87 choirs and a total of 1,900 singers, and has been replicated by other towns and cities across Catalonia. Jordi Martí, Barcelona’s Delegate for Culture, puts it elegantly when he says: “The Palau is not a symbol of power, or the bourgeoisie, or the state. If it manages to get more people in Catalonia to sing, then that is, without a doubt, more important than all the best concert programmes it could put on.” Under Oller’s watchful eye, it would seem the spirit of the great modernista masterpiece has been revived.

And so, this Christmas, Cos will once again step out into Barcelona’s Plaça del Rei alongside his fellow Orfeó members. Since that first concert a decade earlier, the choir have kept the tradition alive, both as an act of penitence and of catharsis. This November also brings a long-awaited conclusion to the who affair: after an epic, eight-year investigation, the Supreme Court’s final verdict will be handed down to Millet and his conspirators, all of whom were released on appeal. By now there can be little doubt of their guilt, nor, as Cos will tell you, of music’s ability to heal even the greatest of rifts.

This article was sponsored by the Palau de la Música Catalana.