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

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