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Keeping a watchful eye: detail of mosaic above the Wigmore Hall stage and John Gilhooly, chief executive
Growing old gracefully Michael Tanner says that the Wigmore Hall, celebrating its 110th birthday,
combines Edwardian grandeur with contemporary appeal
The Wigmore Hall is so expert in advertising itself with taste and discretion that it manages to give the impression, simultaneously, of belonging to a previous era and thus having all the charm of the Edwardian age at its most appealing, while also showing its adaptability to contemporary technology and, at least as important, to contemporary music. Even its website contrives to have a winningly traditional air, while of course being completely upto-date. Certainly the building itself, especially as you approach it, evokes the age in which it was constructed, 110 years ago, with its pointed glass canopy and its lengthy, narrow, mahogany-lined entrance hall. It was the Bechstein Hall, but in the fervour of anti-German feeling induced by the first world war it was sold off to Debenhams and the name was changed. I’ve wondered why it has never changed back, ‘Bechstein’ being so powerful a musical signifier, while ‘Wigmore’ still sounds determinedly nonartistic.
When, decades ago, I first realised that it was the musical venue in London where
I most liked to be, the Wigmore alternated between performances by celebrated instrumentalists, singers and chamber groups, and debut recitals by young unknowns, who hired the place for the evening. When I recently went to the Hall to talk to its chief executive, John Gilhooly, he made it clear that the latter are no longer a feature of the Wigmore’s planning. Only well-known and at least comparatively established figures appear there
The Wigmore is the musical venue in
London where I most like to be now, with the odd exception of a blazing new talent like Benjamin Grosvenor, the sensational young pianist who is also appearing at the Proms; and it is not up for hiring as it was in the old days.
Gilhooly is a youthful, highly energetic Irishman, a singer with an immense appetite for music — he goes to at least 200 of the Hall’s 400 annual concerts, and is a familiar figure at musical events elsewhere — and with strong ideas about what kind of venue the Wigmore needs to be. Clearly he is suc-
the spectator | 25 June 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk ceeding in implementing his ideas: in the last half-dozen years annual attendance at concerts has increased from 120,000 to 180,000, and the reason for that is plain — intransigent pursuit of the best, with no concessions to fashion or ‘accessibility’.
If you look through the list of concerts for the current three-month period, you see, among others, the names of András Schiff, Mikhail Rudy, Thomas Quasthoff, Iestyn Davies, Paul Lewis, Stephen Hough, the Belcea Quartet, Stephen Kovacevich, the Artemis Quartet, the Takács Quartet, Andreas Scholl, the Škampa Quartet, Mark Padmore, Steven Isserlis, Jordi Savall, Elisabeth Leonskaja, the Jerusalem Quartet, Thomas Adès and Joshua Bell. A list like that is unimaginable in the world of opera or orchestral concerts, except for a limited period, as at the Proms. But the Wigmore keeps it up all the year round.
As Gilhooly acknowledges, running such an enterprise is both strenuous and enviable. The number of great string quartets playing at present is far greater than ever before, and the repertoire on which they have to draw