Once stuck in a time warp, the Wigmore Hall is now resurgent and will celebrate its 110th anniversary with an impressive line-upby Martin Kettle / March 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Maestro: Daniel Barenboim, who first played at the Wigmore Hall aged 15, returns in June
I can remember a time, 20 or 30 years ago, when going to a concert at London’s Wigmore Hall felt like a trip into a musical world that had been left behind. Founded in 1901 to show off the virtues of Bechstein pianos, it was a key venue for debut recitals by up-and-coming soloists and the focus of the introverted world of London chamber music and song. But the hall, though loved by some aficionados, seemed caught in a time warp. Its audience was mostly mature, its performers niche, and even headline events struggled to cause a stir beyond the chamber music scene.
Today, it is hard to overstate the transformation. This year, to mark its 110th anniversary, the Wigmore has an unprecedented season of strength and richness, highlighted by Daniel Barenboim—who first played here at the age of 15—returning in June to give a Schubert recital. That month also brings Paul Lewis in Schubert, Stephen Hough in Liszt, and Joanna MacGregor in Bach and Shostakovich. Vocal recitals include Ian Bostridge and Mitsuko Uchida in Schubert’s Winterreise and Susan Graham and Malcolm Martineau in early 20th-century French repertoire. The chamber concerts range from the English Concert in Corelli to the JACK quartet in Ligeti, Cage and Xenakis, via a much-anticipated concert in May of medieval Christian, Sephardic and Turkish music played by the Catalan legend Jordi Savall.
Next season’s programme, not yet officially announced, promises similar riches. Jonas Kaufmann, a tenor who could easily sell out a hall four times the size of the Wigmore, will give a Lieder recital. There will be a hall debut from the French soprano Natalie Dessay and a Shostakovich quartet cycle from the Pacifica Quartet, with the veteran Menahem Pressler, 88 this year, joining them for the composer’s piano quintet. John Gilhooly, Wigmore’s director, is also hot on the trail of what, for any London concert hall, would be the ultimate prize: a solo piano recital by the Argentine pianist Martha Argerich, something this country has not heard for years.
This embarrassment of riches is a fitting celebration of Wigmore’s prolonged success over the last decade. With the hall refurbished and the public areas downstairs extended, the finances put right and the lease secured, programming has generated a 50 per cent increase in ticket sales over the past five years alone. This once stagnant venue is now on a roll.
The upturn in fortunes is partly due to the attractions of the 540-seat Edwardian venue. Chamber musicians tend to prefer smaller, more intimate venues to the drier and soulless feel of the larger halls in which they often perform. In the Wigmore, the problem can be how to scale down the sound of your voice or instrument rather than how to project it more. It therefore presents a more subtle musical challenge.
But mostly responsible for the bullish mood is Gilhooly himself. Brought in as executive director in 2001 to raise funds, he supervised the refurbishment before taking over the artistic planning in 2005. Now he is keen to push the hall’s programming further with more early music.
Newly commissioned works are essential to bring variety and widen the core audience. Savall’s recital in May is part of this drive, along with a study day on the music of Judith Weir and a series of concerts featuring the jazz pianist Brad Mehldau.
Intuitively that’s surely the right strategy, since there’s an extensive untapped audience for early music. Gilhooly is targeting what he calls the Time Out crowd, whose ticket-buying habits are more impulsive, less conventional and who are, above all, younger. So far it seems to be working. In its recent forays into jazz and modern music, the Wigmore has sold half its seats to people under 40 and an increasing number of tickets on the night to first-time visitors. Yet old habits die hard. In a traditional concert in which an international singer performs a Schubert song-cycle, the elderly audience still comes out in force.
Gilhooly says the 110th anniversary season is really just an excuse for a party. But it’s a party that artists and audiences alike seem up for. “There’s far too much doom and gloom being written about the declining classical music audience,” Gilhooly told me recently. “From where I sit, it just isn’t true.” On the evidence of the Wigmore’s forthcoming programmes it is hard to disagree with him.