A hundred years ago, Budapest was one of the most modern cities in Europe, with wide boulevards and opulent buildings recently reconstructed. Two world wars and a half-century of communism later, and the city has a gigantic backlog of reconstruction. It’s being tackled with a will, but the task is enormous: the most casual glance reveals grand hotels and department stores renovated beautifully to their former secessionist glory, cheek by jowl with the flair-filled make-do-and-mend of the “ruined bars” district.

Müpa outside at night © David Karlin
Müpa outside at night
© David Karlin

But amongst all the renovation, one building stands out as an example of where the Hungarians have simply started again: the Palace of Arts (known locally as “Müpa”, a shortening of the Hungarian Művészetek Palotája). Located by the Danube at the south end of Pest’s inner ring of boulevards, it’s obvious at first sight that you’re looking at a new build created with very little compromise. Enter the building (from an often windswept park by the riverside) and you are in a space which is both elegant and welcoming. Warmth is imparted by generous use of pale wood – Canadian maple for the panelling, Hungarian and Chilean cherry elsewhere – while light and airiness result from an open layout with an awful lot of glass.

Müpa will be 10 years old in March next year. It houses three major facilities: the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall, the Festival Theatre and the Ludwig Museum, as well as a number of smaller spaces: wherever you walk in the building, it seems, you come upon some sort of nook and cranny that can be turned into a performance space. The concept of the commissioning authorities was that Müpa should be a “cultural shopping centre” attracting every kind of person interested in culture: Müpa claims to be the largest complex of its kind in Central Europe, bringing together the whole gamut of music, dramatic and visual arts in a way that had not been previously attempted.

Béla Bartók National Concert Hall © Palace of Arts
Béla Bartók National Concert Hall
© Palace of Arts
While the Festival Theatre and the Ludwig Museum are important to Hungarians, the most internationally important of these facilities, and of course the one that’s most interesting to readers of these pages, is the 1700-seater Béla Bartók Hall. It’s an attractive and comfortable venue – nothing so surprising there, for a brand new hall – but what impresses most is its acoustics, the work of the late Russell Johnson and his agency Artec (which was sold to Arup last year, following Johnson’s death in 2007). The hall uses “box within a box” construction (popular, on a notably smaller scale, with recording studios), in which rubber springs isolate the entire hall from external noise. The roughly rectangular shape facilitates lateral reflections which impart richness to the sound, while various tricks can be used to reconfigure the inside surfaces of the hall to suit different types of music. The results are particularly astonishing in that a listener some distance towards the back of the hall can still pick out detailed timbre of individual instruments within an orchestral backwash. The hall also boasts Europe’s largest organ outside a church.

Around half a million people visit over a thousand events at Müpa each year. The architecture of the complex has proved a hit with Hungarians as well as foreigners, who are principally drawn to the city for major events, the largest of these being the Budapest Spring Festival, which runs in March-April each year. Clearly, some visitors have gone home impressed: the lead architect Gábor Zoboki (who, incidentally, was a manqué musician) was subsequently commissioned to build a not dissimilar cultural complex in Shenzhen, housing the Nanshan Art Museum.

Müpa staircase © Palace of Arts
Müpa staircase
© Palace of Arts
While government support for high art is largely absent in the United States and debate may rage in the United Kingdom over its desirable nature and level, the Hungarian government is unequivocal: a significant part of Müpa’s mission is to develop the arts audience of the future. Programmes are actively pursued to ensure a flow of young people through the facility, mainly from Budapest and its environs, but some from other parts of the country. Events are tailored for each age group, with distinct concerts for older children (11-18), primary school children (4-10) and even babies and toddlers (0-3). Müpa CEO Csaba Káel makes a point that the Matinée Concert Series, which caters to the 11-18 year old audience, is now held in the main hall, permitting kids to see a full symphony orchestra in the best possible surroundings. Prices for kids are kept extraordinarily low compared to counterparts in many countries: many events are free, while standing tickets to larger events are typically 500 HUF (around £1.30 or €1.60) under these programmes.

As in many concert halls, programming in the Béla Bartók hall is a mix of the familiar and the groundbreaking. Although the hall was originally intended primarily for orchestral music, recent years have seen an increasing amount of semi-staged opera, with a variety of international co-productions as a result. Some of these have been in far-flung corners of the world, such as last year’s bicentennial production of Verdi’s Attila (a famous or infamous Hungarian, depending on your point of view), which was co-produced with Shanghai Grand Theatre. More new opera has included Ligeti’s Le grand macabre, co-produced with Neue Oper Wien, as well as Péter Eötvös’ Paradise Reloaded. As well as being CEO of Müpa, by the way, Csaba Káel is both a film director (look up “Bánk Bán”) and an opera director who works both inside Hungary and abroad. The fact that Káel has an international artistic presence as well as executive responsibility for the complex helps to facilitate some high profile collaborations with other countries, most notably a number of upcoming projects with the National Centre for the Performing Arts in China.

My own introduction to Müpa was a semi-staged full Ring Cycle (see review) forming part of the “Wagner in Budapest” festival, which has been running since 2006. The audience was full of experienced Wagnerians (with the interval gossip yielding many rumblings of “why wait years for Bayreuth tickets?”) and the experience left me in no doubt about the attractiveness of the venue, the wonderful acoustics or about Budapest’s ability to bring in top classical music talent. If you’re headed for Budapest, make time for a visit. If you’re not – you might just want to reconsider those travel plans.