La Plantation—an open theater for acoustic music lovers
La Plantation—dream project 
Ten years ago, Philippe Bouvet and his several Chinese friends rented a long-abandoned factory in suburban Beijing in order to create a venue for their startup projects.

Bouvet still remembers that the old, spacious house was totally empty with no floors and windows but four walls and a rooftop. The entrepreneurs spent a year and a half to remodel the structure that’s 17 meters high and 100 meters long into La Plantation—a three-storey art space featuring theatre, gallery, design workshop and a restaurant.

“It is more of a life dream for us, instead of being a business initiative,” Bouvet said. He patted on the long sofa in which he was sitting with Sino-US.com reporter in the last row of La Plantation’s theater, “This is a hand-made object by our furniture design workshop. You know the name La Plantation suggests hand-made work and natural stuff,” he said.

Bouvet, who is now in charge of the La Plantation Theater, hails from France. He believes various kinds of artistic shows and works especially music could help free urbanites from daily hustle and bustle while enriching their spiritual world.

Being an expatriate who has braved into a start-up project in China, Bouvet told Sino-US.com he and his partners had spent years to find the right programs for the venue. “After La Plantation’s big opening in 2009, we had been trying to invite famous people in China’s culture and art scene to visit. There was no clear direction, although we tried to take our time to explore our own way. Till 2013, things began to be more efficient and we stepped into the right direction,” he said.

Now, the international art center boasts a miniature concert hall that stages superb acoustic musical performances every weekend, a cultural school that has gained a reputation for its master’s courses in traditional Chinese culture like tea philosophy, guqin and calligraphy, and galleries that would periodically house thematic exhibitions.

Top challenges

La Plantation Theater has achieved popularity among its patrons, while Bouvet admitted it is still merely surviving. “It’s not like we’re making big money from the operation. It just could survive,” he said, noting the enterprise is actually harder than he had thought. “I don’t know what would happen next year, especially in China, where many changes happen very fast. I’m under pressure and so I push myself hard to do more and more to pay my rent and food, and everything.”

La Plantation Photos: courtesy of Philippe Bouvet
 
When Bouvet decided to invest into La Plantation, his father just passed away. “I hoped the money inherited from my father would not be wasted, and I could use it for something interesting,” he said. Bouvet thus contributed the legacy from his father and his own savings.

The entrepreneur tries to stay confident about the future, while sometimes he would also complain. “I have too many people around, but too few in my theater,” he said, “It’s difficult to fill the place because culture is not the first—apartment, education, car and food are more primary elements.” Bouvet said it remains difficult to run a place like La Plantation in a developing country like China.

Sino-US.com reporter had gone for a Saturday night La Plantation event featuring the Beijing Axis Ensemble, a piano string quartet with four musicians hailing from the US, Taiwan, Spain and Hong Kong. The event turned out to be a success, with the theater being packed that night, and after the show, the four musicians had to return to the stage several times to answer the overwhelmingly enthusiastic curtain call.

The venue is perfect for chamber music, Shawn Moore, a well-established classical musician who plays violin for the quartet said. “Chamber music enables more intimate connection between musicians and audiences. Small-sized concert halls like La Plantation deliver the most paramount acoustical quality,” Moore told Sino-US.com in fluent Chinese.

He said that although chamber music still has a long way to go in the country, high-quality live house shows would help the genre reach to more people and gain more popularity. 
 
 
Classical music constitutes 60 percent of all La Plantation shows. Moore admitted that it is comparatively hard to do classical music in China because there are fewer patrons. “In the west, people would spend money on it without expecting high returns, but in China, it is hard to find these kinds of benefactors,” he explained.

Bouvet joked if he had more money 10 years ago, he would build the theater in downtown Beijing, while worrying at the same time, “If La Plantation was situated in more central areas, the entry fee to our performances would be much higher.”

The theater owner who is a music lover himself in true sense emphasized that he always hopes to share music with a mixed audience, instead of just rich people, because the capability to appreciate the beauty in music is not always linked to social class and money.    
 
An open theater

Before starting La Plantation Theater, Bouvet had worked in France for many years as a professional music producer and lighting designer for both stage and TV shows. With many years’ immersion in the industry, he has formed his own perceptions about how to successfully stage acoustic musical performance and make people enjoy it.

“Specifically speaking, La Plantation Theater is an acoustic auditorium. Classical music is not all we have, we would invite musicians that do traditional, Jazz, contemporary and pop music as well,” Bouvet said, noting that he has been intending to push for “a very different kind of style” here compared with venues like specialist theaters such as the Beijing Concert Hall.

“I’m trying to propose to the audience different kinds of shows. I don’t want to feature just one style, like being a venue just for classical music. I want to be an open theater first made for music, an acoustic venue that everything with high quality would fit,” he emphasized.

In most cases, Bouvet chooses music that he himself finds charming. “If I choose what others like, I would not choose very wisely,” he said. The veteran is confident that the musicians he has invited on stage are capable of touching the audience and stirring their emotions.

In his words, he is working for long term. “If my audience are used to listen to the piano, I want them to listen to violin, if they…I hope for each show, people have new feelings. It’s not like they are supposed to know what they are coming for. I hope they come, and they’re curious and then they discover something,” he said, noting curiosity is the most important thing.

On the other hand, Bouvet said that he would put more value on the “quality” of music instead of the “fame” of it. “People who come on stage here are not necessarily famous, because quality and talent are not always linked to the fact if you’re famous or not,” he said. The French entrepreneur told Sino-US.com that in many cases, he actually could afford to invite a star of French music but not a Chinese beginner, because Chinese beginners sometimes would ask for too much money.

“Now in China, the famous stuff is not necessarily the good ones. Music is like food and colors, even a five-year-old could tell the difference between real talents with high expertise and just hyped up performances,” he concluded. 

 
Due to the size of site, the sound is very good, Bouvet noted. Over the past several years, his theatre has gained compliments from musicians and audiences from all across the world.

Bouvet talked about his five Chinese partners at La Plantation. “We’ve got two workers for six bosses, so we’re also workers. Every day, we work here to build the place—in many ways, not only the building, but the reputation and the quality,” he said, “It’s a big investment but it’s a big pleasure when it’s successful.”

 


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