Sir Simon Rattle’s much publicized lament that London lacks a world-class concert hall has attracted considerable comment. In specialized journals and the broader music press, debate has focused on the success of contemporary halls in Paris, Berlin and China or the respective merits of vineyard vs horseshoe designs. Unfortunately most articles on the subject neglect to mention what are arguably the finest new concert halls in Europe – the National Forum of Music (NFM) hall in Wrocław and Narodowa Orkiestra Symfoniczna Polskiego Radia (NOSPR) hall in Katowice – both of which happen to be in Poland.
The latter, home to the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, opened in October 2014 and immediately revitalized a stagnant, economically depressed coal-mining town of 300,000 inhabitants in Polish Silesia. Despite the fact that Katowice was home to the celebrated Polish composer Henryk Górecki, it was for many years a cultural backwater. The metamorphosis of this former soulless sooty town has been so extraordinary it was recently designated as a UNESCO Creative City of Music – the first such honour to be awarded in Central or Eastern Europe.
The 1800 seat NOSPR hall is built on the site of a former coal mine and past traditions were incorporated into the design by local architect Tomasz Konior. The design concept is basically a ‘box in a box’ and the actual auditorium section was the work of Japanese acoustical engineering company Nagata Acoustics with the passionate involvement of another local lad probably more familiar to Bachtrack readers called Krystian Zimerman.
The red brick strongly vertical exterior reflects the traditional coal-miners’ cottages while the prevalence of grey and black pre-tinted concrete in the interior replicates the mineral itself. Built at a cost of roughly 70 million euros with significant help from the European Union, the hall gives extraordinary value for money, especially in comparison to the 100 million or so spent tinkering with the Royal Festival Hall.
There is also a smaller 280 seat venue within the building and 8 comfortable apartments in the ‘outer box’ for visiting artists and guests of NOSPR. The project as a whole sits on a huge complex of gardens, piazze, an amphitheatre and even an arboreal maze based on the street grid of Katowice in 1922.
The acoustics, principally designed for the resident NOSPR orchestra, are superb. Extensive use of Alaskan cedar and Finnish birch gives a wonderfully warm round sound. Sight lines are excellent over 5 floors and the seats surprisingly comfortable – no Bayreuth-esque painful posteriors in Katowice. A recent performance of the Chopin First Piano Concerto with 2015 Chopin Competition 3rd Prize winner Kate Liu revealed just how fabulous the acoustics are. Every gossamer-light pianissimo in the ethereal second movement was as crystal clear and audible as if being heard in an intimate private salon.
The contours of the walls almost give a feeling of being in a cosy, solid ship. Bars and refreshment areas abound and there is ample parking nearby. Even the toilets (of which there are an unusually large number) are stylishly designed and extremely aesthetic. In all respects this is an outstanding accomplishment of which the good burghers of the newly crowned ‘Creative City of Music’ can be justly proud.
Only 200 kilometers away to the north-west is the much more celebrated and picturesque student town of Wrocław which was also known as Breslau in a former life. Brahms admired it so much he dedicated his Academic Festival Overture to the local university. Not to be outdone by their neighbouring Silesian cousins to the east, this gem of outstanding 13th-century architecture on the Odra River decided to build a similarly spectacular concert hall, although its progress to completion was fraught with a lot more difficulties.
Designed on the admirable basis of “primo il suono, doppo la forma” the City of Wrocław awarded responsibility for the acoustical engineering to Tateo Nakajima and the American specialist firm of Artec Consultants Inc (now called Arup). Achieving the highest possible level of acoustic excellence was the project’s over-riding concern. The acoustic experts then worked with the noted Warsaw firm of Kuryłowicz & Associates Architecture Studio to create the shape and form of the impressive building which covers six floors and three underground levels. It opened in September last year.
As the official website explains: “Several factors are key in shaping the acoustics of the NFM's main concert hall. These include special acoustic chambers with motorized doors, sound absorptive curtains and a multi-segment motorized canopy reflector made of plaster components which can be adjusted to created the optimal acoustical environment for whatever style if music is being performed.”
Like Katowice, the ‘box in a box’ concept makes it possible to insulate the concert hall's interior against noise from outside. Unlike Katowice however, the main hall (again seating c.1800) was to be capable of multi-purpose performance styles which meant the acoustics had to be absolutely and easily adjustable - hence the acoustic chambers mentioned above. Considering the NFM hall is home to 11 different musical organisations ranging from the NFM Symphony Orchestra to the NFM Boys’ Choir and the Polish Cello Quartet, such acoustical flexibility was not only desirable but essential.
The musical instrument inspired exterior is somewhat like a stylized terracotta-coloured ark with strongly horizontal lines. An enormous glass entrance portal leads to an imposing staircase facing a gigantic wall made of back corian which abuts white balconies to replicate a piano keyboard. Neat, slick and visually arresting.
The interior of the main concert hall is every bit as impressive as Katowice but with a very different feel. For one thing, Wrocław has a much more defined trapezoid form than its elliptical shaped ship-like cousin. The actual stage area is enormous and even large orchestras required for Bruckner or Mahler have plenty of room. An extensive retractable front stage section can be removed according to the requirements of the performance. The predominantly pale timber interior molded to the cement structure ensures a flawless, especially bright, pristine, and totally echo-less sound.
There are three smaller halls in the building and various ancillary spaces such as a recording studio and conference room. Although the public areas and bars are not as extensive as in Katowice, this is not to suggest that the NFM hall is in any way inferior.
The NFM budget was also considerably higher than Katowice – almost 110 millions euros of which 30% was funded by the European Union – certainly not chickenfeed for a town of 650,000 inhabitants in a country where the average income is still considerably lower than that of Western Europe.
The decision to award Wrocław the honour of European Capital of Culture for 2016 was just recognition of the enormous progress this stately, historical and thoroughly delightful city has made in recent years and the absolute centerpiece of this exceptional cultural renaissance is unquestionably the new NFM hall. Most musicians concur that the NFM Hall in Wrocław is certainly better than anything London currently has to offer.
The chance to hear the Hamburg-based Norddeutscher Rundfunk Orchester under the extraordinarily physical and charismatic young Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbański play the Beethoven Egmont Overture and Shostakovich Tenth Symphony in both cities provided a unique opportunity to compare the two halls. In Wrocław the sound was certainly very bright, un-muffled and crisp and almost surgically revealed the multi-layered tapestry of the incredibly complex Shostakovich score. In Katowice the resonance of the NOPSR hall was much rounder and the lower strings in particular sounded superb.
To draw a pianistic parallel, the difference in timbre between the two venues is akin to that of a New York Steinway (Wrocław) and Vienna Bösendorfer (Katowice). However, as both are unquestionably superb instruments, it really just comes down to personal preference. Comparisons between the two Polish auditoria are not only odious but otiose. Both halls are superb and any city committed to musical excellence such as London would be well advised to look very closely at what is happening in Poland.
For a relatively poor ex-communist country to build one architecturally acclaimed and acoustically exceptional hall would be noteworthy. In building two resplendent venues (and a number of excellent smaller halls throughout the country) within the past few years, Poland has become a world leader in concert hall design and construction. Even more importantly, these halls are in no way decorative white elephants of dubious utility. In most cities where new auditoria have been built, concert attendance has more than quadrupled.
EU skeptics may sneer but this is surely a case when the largesse of Brussels has been returned in spades – and not just the queen thereof.