A Space for Beauty: The National Forum of Music (NFM)

Written by the NFM team headed by its director Andrzej Kosendiak

Director of the Witold Lutosławski National Forum of Music (NFM) in Wroclaw, conductor and teacher, one of the most active musicians and promoters of musical life in Poland. In 2005, he became Director of the Wroclaw Philharmonic and the International Festival Wratislavia Cantans and effected structurally and profile transformation of both institutions, finally merging them into the NFM. He led the project of building the new venue of the NFM in Wroclaw, hailed as one of the best concert halls in Europe. As Director of the NFM, he has created new artistic ensembles and initiated many projects. He has recorded previously unknown works from Wroclaw University Library and Strasbourg Library, and Stanisław Moniuszko’s Phantoms (awarded a Fryderyk in the Album of the Year—Choral Music, Oratorio and Opera category 2019) and eight albums with works by Polish Baroque composers, including Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki (awarded Wroclaw Music Prize) and Marcin Mielczewski (honoured with a Fryderyk in the Album of the Year—Early Music category 2019). Andrzej Kosendiak regularly conducts the NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic, NFM Choir, Wroclaw Baroque Orchestra, Wroclaw Baroque Ensemble, and philharmonic orchestras across Poland and around the world. He has performed in many countries in Europe, the USA, and China. Andrzej Kosendiak has many awards and distinctions to his credit.  

The National Forum of Music (NFM) is one of the largest concert venues in Central Europe. This building, located in the heart of Wroclaw, features four concert halls: the main hall (with 1800 seats) and three chamber halls (each with 250–450 seats). Each hall has been designed to adapt to all genres—from classical through jazz to alternative and electronic music. And when the music stops, the absolute silence in the halls is just stunning. As well as concert halls, the building also encompasses rehearsal rooms, conference rooms, offices, exhibition spaces, and a restaurant.

Stanisław Moniuszko’s forgotten work The Phantoms was one of the most spectacular events that the NFM has organized so far. Based on the second part of Adam Mickiewicz’s Dziady [Forefathers’ Eve], a milestone dramatic work of Polish Romanticism, the cantata is filled with music inspired by folklore and faithfully reproduces the original literary content. The staging at the NFM was edgy, poignant, with reference to the current socio-political context. Thus a tension was created between the beauty and dignity of the concert hall, the singing and sweetness of the score and the echoes of the war and other calamities of today’s world, giving rise to feelings of anxiety and filling this space with a post-apocalyptic images and characters transferred from the haunting paintings of Zdzisław Beksiński, the theatre of Tadeusz Kantor, and the kind of expression known from the paintings of Andrzej Wróblewski. The actors’ movements complemented the sounds of the orchestra and chorus, the bodies and gestures created their own kind of “music.” The theatre part was like an instrument alongside the orchestra and chorus performing The Phantoms. The Wroclaw Baroque Orchestra was conducted by NFM director—Andrzej Kosendiak. There were dancers, stilt walkers, and actors, including students of the local state theatre school. Another untypical event at the NFM used streaming technology, thanks to which thousands of music lovers could attend it in the space normally unavailable to them that is the NFM Main Hall machinery room. There was no audience attending the #online concert in the real space. Thanks to the internet broadcast, the listeners could choose to participate in the concert in a festival club arranged in the foyer level -3 or stay at home, in front of a computer screen or TV, in slippers and with a favourite drink in hand.

Let the Music Sound

How do you create ideal acoustic conditions? By adjusting how the concert venue sounds depending on the repertoire being performed that day. To obtain an excellent outcome, the design of the acoustics was created first, and only then did the architectural concept follow. The building’s acoustic design was created by Artec Consultants Inc. (Arup) from New York, with the lead acoustics designer being Tateo Nakajima.

A necessary element of good acoustics is total isolation of the concert hall from external noise (both from other parts of the building and from outside of the building, which is located in a busy central area of the city). This was achieved using the box-in-box technique, which isolates each of the concert halls with a space on every side. In the main hall, red hall, and black hall, the only points of contact with the ground are in their vibration isolators. This is a rubber layer located under the halls that prevent the transmission of vibrations.

The acoustics of the main hall is regulated by four systems: canopies, reverberation chambers, curtains, and modifiable stage size. The canopies are 23 panels hanging parallel to the ceiling—they are different in size and can be lowered to any height required. They are used not only to change the acoustic experiences of the audience, but also to adjust the volume of the room, depending on the size of an ensemble, and make it easier for the musicians to hear one another on stage.

All rooms are equipped with curtains made from a heavy material. The curtains can be drawn along the walls so that they absorb the sound and reduce reverberation, which is very important during events with amplification. They can also reduce the volume of music when needed. The excellent acoustics of the halls is also a result of the building’s curved lines, which have been designed without sharp breaks that could lead to the sound getting lost. All installations are subject to the acoustic regime and made to work silently. Thanks to the highest acoustic standards, audiences at the NFM don’t hear anything other than the sound of music.

48,500 m² of Music

The NFM building, both functional and accessible to all, has been constructed with the idea of architecture serving excellent acoustics. At the same time, it is beautiful and timeless, fitting with the traditional style of Wroclaw. The building has 48,500 m² of floor space across its 10 levels, from level -3 (15 m below ground level) to level +6 (30 m above the surface).

The NFM has been built for both visual and auditory pleasure. The architects at Kuryłowicz & Associates Architecture Studio—under the direction of Stefan Kuryłowicz, and later Ewa Kuryłowicz—were inspired by music. The shape of the building and its façade bring to mind a string instrument, and the black foyer walls and white balconies are a reference to a piano keyboard. The colours of the foyer and the main hall—white and black—also bring a piano to mind. Colours also set the ambiance of the chamber halls. Horizontal divisions, both in the main foyer and on the building’s external walls, bear resemblance to the characteristic architecture of early 1930s Wroclaw.

Musical Heart of Wroclaw

The heart of the NFM—the main hall—features three balconies, a flat ground level, an amphitheatre, and a choir behind the stage. The music is equally well heard from any place inside. The hall has a shoebox shape, which means that the stage is located on one side of the room, with the majority of audience seats on the other side. This is the most universal solution and one that has proven most effective when music is amplified.

It is possible to modify the stage size. The number of seats on the ground level is flexible—for concerts with very large ensembles, the stage can be enlarged by decreasing the number of seats by three or five rows. By shortening the stage and decreasing the audience capacity, part of the floor can be lowered in order to create an orchestra pit, located beneath the audience level (as in an opera house). The change in the stage size also affects the acoustics of the hall. The choir is the part of the hall above the stage, located above the back part of the stage and on its sides. This is not only a space for choir members; during concerts, without a choir it becomes part of the audience. While seated there, audience members have an unusual opportunity to look the conductor in the eyes, peek at the orchestra musicians’ sheet music, and view the entire hall from a different perspective.

The three chamber halls are suitable for concerts, meetings, balls, and conferences. In the chamber hall and black hall, the flat floor and mobile elements allow for any configuration of stage and audience. The red hall features an amphitheatre-style mobile audience. All chamber halls are equipped with a sound system, and their acoustic properties can be adjusted with sound amplification.

A Meeting with Art

While getting ready for their artistic experience, the audience walks through an elegant foyer. An open, wide staircase leads through several levels, with the higher ones providing a wonderful view over the impressive foyer and towards Wroclaw. At all levels, the audience can enjoy paintings, sculptures and art installations. Space is also perfect for banquets, networking, and even concerts! The -3 level is suitable for movie screenings, with the white wall used as a screen.

Everything is Possible

The main hall is equipped with a folding full-size movie screen, a cinematic sound system and a surround sound system. It is possible to hang equipment from the ceiling, including recording microphones, additional screens or elements of scenography. All halls feature their own control booth, which can also be used by an interpreter or sound engineers; this also means that they can instantly be converted into recording studios. Thanks to the installations hidden in the floor, the acousticians can also work directly in the hall. A broadcasting vehicle outside the building can be easily connected to the systems on the wall.

Millimetres of Sounds

The crowning glory of the main hall is the exquisite organ with 4,700 pipes, the smallest of which is just several millimetres long, and the largest one spanning over 10 metres. The instrument can play sounds from the lowest sounds audible to humans (with a frequency of 16 Hz) to very high ones at 18,000 Hz. Organists have 80 stops (tones) to choose from, including high-pressure and percussive sounds. The organ features two independent actions—mechanical and mobile (electric)—and also allows sound recording.

An Art District

Plac Wolności is a large space in the very heart of the city. It was restored during the construction of the NFM building and is now a bustling space for outdoor events, a favourite spot for skaters, and a set for many photo shoots. On the southern side, alongside the NFM building, is the Old Town Promenade—a picturesque boardwalk along a moat that goes around the historic part of the city, and a place for walks beloved by Wroclaw residents.

The NFM is also part of the district of culture. Its neighbour is the classical Wroclaw Opera building, and to the north are the theatre museum and the historical museum, located in a stunning royal palace with a French-style garden adjoining Plac Wolności.

At the NFM we are proud to be part of the vibrant city of Wroclaw, a vigorous urban culture full of young people and an open-minded community that makes everybody feel welcome. Wroclaw has been awarded the title of European Best Destination 2018 thanks to its rich history and exceptional beauty, as well as modern facilities for tourists. The city was named European Capital of Culture 2016 winning acclaim for its flourishing culture and countless art venues. Whether you are a culture lover, a sightseeing freak, a keen party goer or a foodie on holiday, you will enjoy every moment of your stay in Wroclaw.

Art and Emotions at the NFM

For the NFM, the most important task is to share emotions and values through its activities. Among the roughly 250 varied concerts that make up the artistic season, every listener will find something for them. This is a fact proven by the number of visitors, which can reach up to 200,000 every year. The goals of the NFM are to inspire through art and to facilitate participation in culture for everyone.

We share our passion also at eight festivals, to which we invite outstanding artists from all over the world. The NFM has become the meeting place for representatives of many different art forms, not just music. We present classical and early music, ethnic, contemporary and electronic sounds, jazz, opera, and interdisciplinary projects. Every year around we host around 280 soloists, conductors, and ensembles from Poland, along with around 300 from abroad. Their presence allows us to open ourselves to different cultures and hold a creative dialogue in which we learn respect and cooperation with others. The NFM is a member of several international organisations, and our partners from different continents stimulate us to produce even more creative work. This is why we are open to novelties and experiments, and every year the NFM sees the Polish and world premieres of around 40 compositions.

The NFM is not only a place to listen to the best performances of exceptional music. The building also serves the community of Wroclaw and residents of Lower Silesia. Children, young people, and artists at the start of their career, adults, seniors, and people with special educational needs can all benefit from our varied educational and mobilising offers. The NFM hosts charity events, anniversary, and jubilee concerts for distinguished people and public institutions, public holiday events, conferences, and school and music academy concerts. Among other events, through music we have expressed our solidarity with the protesters on Maidan and performed to raise funds for Aleppo. The NFM takes part in numerous social events, such as Miesiąc Rodzinny (Family Month), Noc Muzeów (Night of Museums) and the project Zamknięte sklepy—otwarte miasto [Closed Shops—Open City]. This modern set of concert halls can be also rented to organise a variety of events; the building’s broad technical possibilities and competent staff make it possible to set up even the most daring projects.

As many as 13 ensembles (orchestras, chamber groups, and choirs) can now develop under the patronage of the NFM, and more are invited to cooperate. We want to delight with valuable repertoire, dare to discover new compositions, fascinate with early music performed in an authentic and current way, provide entertainment at the highest level and promote Polish works. The NFM is a place where listeners can meet remarkable musicians, and artists can build relationships on an international scale. We engage in a wide range of recording activities—each year we release many albums with varied repertoire, including compositions that had not been recorded before. We also publish books inspired by music.

With joy, we are building a strong Polish brand, representing Polish art abroad, contributing to an increase in the touristic and cultural appeal of the region, and co-creating an aesthetic city space in the centre of Wroclaw. We are a partner for many music stars, organisations, and companies from across the entire world, and a venue at which you can meet up with your guests and business partners or spend time with the family. Our music lovers can live through unforgettable moments, discover new interests, develop talents and spend their free time in an interesting way at the NFM. We jointly create a space for beauty.

Conclusion: Tradition and Modernity

Experiencing music together has a long tradition in Wroclaw. The NFM was born out of the joining together of the Witold Lutosławski Philharmonic and the International Festival Wratislavia Cantans in 2014.

The beginning of the Wroclaw Philharmonic dates back to 1945—its first concert taking place in a city full of post-war rubble, but the tradition of public concerts and the city orchestra goes back even earlier, to the 1850s. The Wratislavia Cantans festival, founded by Andrzej Markowski, has been a brand of Wroclaw cultural life for over 50 years and is known as one of Central Europe’s most important classical music festivals. The first edition took place in 1966 under the name Oratorio and Cantata Festival Wratislavia Cantans, under the patronage of the Philharmonic. Since 2005, with the construction of the new venue on the horizon, the Philharmonic and its director Andrzej Kosendiak began to bring together numerous Wroclaw-based ensembles and classical and contemporary music festivals, as well as creating new ones. The new concert hall, originated by the then mayor of the city Rafał Dutkiewicz and Andrzej Kosendiak, brought to life entirely new cultural possibilities for the residents of Wroclaw and Lower Silesia.

After many years of construction of this modern cultural institution, music sounded at the NFM for the first time on September 4, 2015. It was performed first and foremost by the Wroclaw ensembles that found both a home and conditions for active development at the new building. The opening of the NFM was on everyone’s lips in Wroclaw, and the building was visited by thousands of guests, including musicians from Poland and abroad. Everyone felt that finally there was a concert venue that was a match for a dynamic European city.

doi: 10.18278/aia.4.2.13