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Forum for the future

NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra
GIG Magazine

By Michael Grant

Michael Grant surveys the continuing upsurge of artistic activity in Wroclaw, rapidly becoming the new Polish cultural centre

In the past few years, the Polish city of Wroclaw has undergone a slew of changes. Under the dynamic leadership of Rafal Dutkiewicz, mayor since 2002, as many as 120,000 new jobs have been created in the city,with €1bn of investment in the corporate sector, thanks to strategic partnerships with (among others) Google, LG, HP, Volvo and Nokia. Dutkiewicz was named the best mayor in Poland by the influential Newsweek Polska magazine,which also noted the support he had given to the city’s cultural industry: in the past 10 years Wroclaw’s culture budget has more than doubled.

The city now has a renewed self-confidence that manifests itself in its long-term cultural projects. It is one of the contenders for the 2016 European Capital of Culture (‘a Polish city’will share the title with one in Spain), and will be hosting the International Society for Contemporary Music’s annual World Music Days in 2014.The latter will be taking place in the National Forum of Music (NFM), an almost PLN400m (€100m) concert hall that has been conceived as a meeting place for most cultural initiatives, ideas and artistic projects in Wroclaw.The largest and most modern cultural investment in Poland at this time, the NFM will boast an 1,800-capacity concert hall, three chamber halls, rehearsal rooms, conference and office space, a recording studio, exhibition area and an underground car park.Construction work on the hall has already begun, for a projected opening in the autumn of 2012.Wroclaw will then have a unique cultural centre with the 19th-century Wroclaw Opera on the other side on the same square.

‘We hope that the new institution will become an exclusive and worldrenowned brand, a unique place whose significance goes far beyond Wroclaw,’ says Andrzej Kosendiak, NFM’s general director. What’s more, the city currently has a noticeable lack of modern, state-of-the-art concert halls; as a result of heavy bombing during World War II,many of Wroclaw’s performing spaces, including several fine churches,were lost.The current Philharmonic Hall – the home of the Wroclaw Philharmonic – has a capacity of just 450, and acoustically leaves a lot to be desired.

For NFM, the New York-based Artec Consultants Inc have been engaged to ensure the highest level of acoustics,while APA Kurylowicz & Associates, an architectural firm with offices in Wroclaw and Warsaw,won the building contract. Polish architect Stefan Kurylowicz was chosen from a long list of 60 architects who took part in the original design contest. According to Kosendiak, the complex’s unusual name ‘refers to the plans from 100 years ago to set up the “Arts Forum” in the place where national and military celebrations were held. The spot had been called the Royal Forum (as it had housed the King of Prussia’s palace). Today we wish that the Music Forum’s name would mean the space for performing works of different epochs, and where a true dialogue and artistic disputes on contemporary art could be held.’

The name will be shared by the institution to be created to run the complex, founded from the merger of the Wroclaw Philharmonic and the International Festival Wratislavia Cantans (of which more later). Kosendiak, the general director of both orchestra and festival, has managed and coordinated the construction of the NFM since 2004.‘The idea is not just to build a concert hall but to use the project to make changes in artistic ensembles, in education and related areas,’ he explains. ‘There were people who questioned why we are building the new hall but I do feel that after two years of development, people have accepted the idea.But we need to make sure there’s an audience. It’s why we have been doing so much education work and why there’ll be an education programme at the NFM.

‘Six years ago, there was no school choir in Wroclaw and now we have almost 40 thanks to the work we’ve been doing in education,’ Kosendiak adds. ‘We’ve set up the Singing Poland project to build choirs across the whole of Poland.We’ve now created 400 school choirs and founded three new music schools.’ A former arts school inspector, the 55-year-old has also been director of artistic school programming and supervision at the national Ministry of Culture, where he established a special in-service training programme for teachers.

The situation now is a far cry from the one Kosendiak encountered when he joined the Philharmonic – at that time, it was the only professional music ensemble in the city. Since 2002, new ensembles have been founded based around the Wroclaw Philharmonic: the Wroclaw Baroque Orchestra, Choir and Boys’ Choir have all originated in the past decade. Kosendiak has also started numerous festivals (Forum Musicum, Leo Festival) and artistic projects (as well as Singing Poland, there’s also the project of recording the collected works of Lutoslawski, 1,000 years of music in Wroclaw, and Wroclaw Oratorio Recordings, among others). Plus, with the aid of Piotr Turkiewicz,NFM’s head of music management,he has launched an annual jazz festival at the Philharmonic with the intriguing name of ‘Jazztopad’ – a play on ‘Listopad’, the Polish word for ‘November’. As artistic director, Turkiewicz has brought the likes of Wayne Shorter, Kenny Wheeler,Manu Katché and Bill Frisell to the festival,which remains committed to the idea of blending jazz with classical music and presenting
unique projects that are not usually put into regular jazz clubs. ‘It is worth underlining that for the last three years we have commissioned pieces,’ Turkiewicz points out. ‘Last year, the great Terje Rypdal wrote ‘Waterfalls’ for us, an amazing piece for symphony orchestra and guitar. It is planned to be released on ECM. And this year John Surman is writing a piece for us for his trio and string orchestra.’

The city’s longest-established music festival is the Wratislavia Cantans, now in its 45th year. Paul McCreesh, the UK early music specialist and founder of the Gabrieli Consort, has been the festival’s artistic director since 2006.This year’s set piece extravaganza,organised by McCreesh, will be the performance, on the final night of the festival, of Berlioz’s monumental Grande Messe des morts, featuring 450 musicians – including the Festival Orchestra, Festival Choir, Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, and Gabrieli Consort & Players. Other highlights of the two-weekend festival in September will include Bach’s Mass in B minor conducted by Philippe Herreweghe, and also Kunst der Fuge performed the following day by the Akademie für Alte Musik.

‘Wratislavia Cantans [presents] annual concerts of international stars [that] attract thousands of music lovers to Wroclaw’s and Lower Silesia’s most beautiful historic interiors,’ Turkiewicz states. ‘It is a member of the prestigious European Festivals Association, seated in Ghent, and since 1998 a member of the International Society for Performing Arts.’As one of the oldest cultural institutions in the city,Wratislavia Cantans has a number of branches integrated into Wroclaw’s artistic scene – films, books and CDs are all made under the festival’s name, as well as a complete overview on CD-Rom and DVD. The festival is broadcast on radio and TV, and attended by approximately 20,000 people annually.

The festival implicitly has an association with the Philharmonic, sharing its general director and the running of the NFM. In fact, the Philharmonic now has a finger in nearly every musical pie, given Kosendiak’s energetic creation of ensembles: the orchestra now has its own choir and boys’ choir, plus the Wroclaw Baroque Orchestra,Wroclaw Chamber Orchestra Leopoldinum and the Lutoslawski Quartet. The last of these is made up from string players of the Philharmonic and is generally devoted to contemporary music, particularly Polish composers such as Bacewicz, Baird and Lutoslawski himself. The ensemble also performs classical, Romantic and jazz.

Now, after 10 years of building up the city’s cultural credentials, the music academy is increasingly targeting overseas students and the city is hoping to attract more international tourists.Wroclaw is as close to Berlin as it is to Warsaw and a major new motorway link connecting Wroclaw with the German capital is almost completed. Dresden and Prague are just 300km away (as close as Kraków) and even Vienna, at 400km, is within relatively easy reach.But NFM will be the most significant draw,not just for tourists but also conference delegates and festivalgoers as well. ‘The NFM building will be an inherent part of Wroclaw cityscape and its cultural landscape as well,’Kosendiak concludes.‘An inspiring place does not only make a background, it can complete the events taking place within, it can enter into dialogue, it can stimulate forming new quality – which is the result of spreading such diverse influences.’