Hall of fame: Wigmore Hall begins its 110th anniversary season

Michael Church celebrates it glittering history

When a group of pro-Palestinian activists stormed a recital by the Jerusalem Quartet at the Wigmore Hall recently – forcing Radio 3 to cut off live transmission – they were acknowledging something about this hall, as well as making a clumsy political point. "We all have our views about what's going on in Gaza, but as an institution we are neutral," says John Gilhooly, the soft-spoken, determined Irishman who is its director. "They won't get in again. To many people this is a sacred space." Which is precisely why the protesters chose it.

Now preparing to celebrate its 110th anniversary, the Wigmore has long worn this aura, though when it opened in 1901 it had a different name and purpose. As the Bechstein Hall, sitting next door to the Bechstein showrooms, it was created as a shop-window for Europe's leading piano-maker. Its unique acoustic – still the gold-standard for concert halls – was quickly copied elsewhere; its fresco in the cupola above the stage – an allegorical scene of wonderfully ambiguous sexual suggestiveness – sent contemporary critics into ecstasies. The Edwardian gentility it represented is still reflected in the word "Artistes" over the stage door.

The inaugural concert began with "God Save the King", and combined quirky drawing-room ballads with performances by the legendary violinist-composer Eugene Ysaye, by that towering keyboard genius Ferruccio Busoni, and by a celebrated tenor who had studied with Clara Schumann. Start as you mean to go on: though the early years were marked by a resistance to anything too "heavy" – an entire recital devoted to Chopin was regarded as very risky – the musicians made a jaw-dropping list, including Saint-Saëns, Joachim, Sarasate, Nellie Melba, Enrico Caruso, a 22-year-old Artur Schnabel, and a 25-year-old Arthur Rubinstein. Some were also jaw-droppingly eccentric, like the diminutive Viennese "pianissimist" Vladimir de Pachmann, alias the "Chopinzee", whose preposterous onstage antics prompted George Bernard Shaw to praise his "well-known pantomimic performance, with accompaniments by Chopin."

With the outbreak of war in 1914, the hall's German ownership became an unexpected liability. The Pianomaker was a downmarket British trade magazine with proto-BNP attitudes, which suddenly saw a chance to chase its big foreign competitor out of the market. Heroic patriotic efforts to "squash the Bechstein business" should culminate in the "internment" and "deportation" of all their pianos, the magazine thundered; the Bechstein Hall's application for the renewal of its licence should be disallowed because the space was "simply used as an advertising medium for getting rid of German goods in this country". (How topical this now sounds.) The magazine won, the licence was refused, and the hall plus 137 fine pianos were made available for sale to "anyone not under foreign influence". The auction was won by Debenhams department store, which got the lot for a derisory sum, and the hall reopened after being renamed from its geographical location.

Luckily things soon got back on track, and when a tenor asked his audience, one night in 1920, if they minded him singing Schumann in German, there were loud cries of "No!", with The Lady adding its approval: "Now that we have defeated the enemy, and are at peace with him, we ought not to keep up a boycott of German lyrics." From that point on, the hall quickly established itself as the chamber-music focus of London's concert life, and its roster of stars grew ever more glittering. Alfred Cortot, Walter Gieseking, Pablo Casals, and Andrés Segovia were prominent in the Thirties; the inspirational Myra Hess led the field during the next war, then came that golden age when Britten made the Wigmore his test-bed for premieres. The 15-year-old Daniel Barenboim played Beethoven's Hammerklavier there in short trousers, soon to be followed by a 16-year-old Jacqueline du Pré, and by an only slightly older Mitsuko Uchida. The insatiably demanding Elisabeth Schwarzkopf – who complained that in the brilliant new Festival Hall she couldn't hear her own voice – was one of many famous singers who made the Wigmore their home. Cleo Laine, who describes it as "the godmother of music", and whose husband, John Dankworth, grabbed the chance to organise a jazz series there, was another.

But the most remarkable thing about the Wigmore's roster is its continuity, reflecting the cool hand of the self-effacing Australian who ran it from 1966 until his retirement in 2003: William Lyne is still to be seen there several nights a week, as András Schiff, Steven Isserlis, and his other discoveries continue to pack the place out. "William warned me never to give in to despair," says Gilhooly, "and to just keep doing what I believed in." Quite so: Schiff was initially a hard sell, though he now books out months in advance. Gilhooly's own list of coups is lengthening: while keeping faith with the old guard – Brendel will deliver three lecture-recitals in November – he's stoking things up with appearances by Magdalena Kozena, Jonas Kaufmann, and the new hot-shot countertenor Iestyn Davies, who will have his own residency next year.

The real significance of this story lies in what it tells us about classical music today – and the public's attitude to it. When Gilhooly took over five years ago, the hall was in financial trouble, with its audience-figures on the slide. Yet since then ticket sales have shot up, from 120,000 per year to over 180,000, with no recession-related dip on the horizon. Gilhooly could easily have taken the soft option and turned the hall into a "garage" – for hire to all comers – but instead he decided to reduce the number of hirings, and to increase correspondingly the number of the hall's own promotions – and these are now between 95 per cent and 100 per cent sold out. "We've grown so far so quickly," he says, "we're close to saturation now."

He's also launched a record label, Wigmore Hall Live, whose success – routinely selling 5 to 10,000 copies per CD – has reinforced the brand in both Europe and America. And he's set up a team to chase sponsorship – essential, given that the hall must raise £1m each year, in addition to its box-office takings. Ten per cent of its turnover also comes from the Arts Council, but in these uncertain times Gilhooly is not counting too complacently on that. Every evening he spends time chatting in the foyer, getting to know his audience, and finding out what draws them.

And he's made some interesting discoveries. Schubert brings in the die-hards, while Elizabethan sacred music and countertenors bring in the under-forties, as do Bartok quartets and new-music days by cool-dude composers like Kevin Volans. Many people tell him they have only gravitated in later life to chamber music, after years of going to symphony concerts. And Gilhooly has hit on a simple and effective way of counteracting the notion – fostered by concerts sold-out long in advance – that the 550-seat hall is exclusive: by getting Schiff, Angela Hewitt, or whoever to repeat their recitals two or three days after their first performance. This brings in the late-bookers, who tend to be young. Meanwhile, he's introducing late-night concerts, and expanding the hall's jazz and world-music programmes: next year the north Indian classical maestro Amjad Ali Khan will host his own series, while Paco Pena's CD is one of Wigmore Live's best-sellers.

Gilhooly will have no truck with the notion that grey heads in the auditorium denote the imminent demise of his audience: while older people have time and money for concert-going, young ones have exhausting jobs and children to raise. But the modish requiems sung over classical music's imagined corpse can still do damage, he says. The Wigmore Hall has a busy programme for under-fives, and routinely sends singers and instrumentalists into schools. "But our work there is just a drop in the ocean. For the real job of awakening interest among the young, music needs to be put back in the core curriculum."

The Wigmore Hall's 110th anniversary season starts tomorrow with a recital of Schubert, Brahms and Sibelius by the Finnish soprano Karita Mattila

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before