John Gilhooly: keeper of the musical flame at Wigmore Hall
Tuesday, August 15, 2023
Amid a feast of world-class music-making, James Jolly sits down with the Director of London’s Wigmore Hall, John Gilhooly to find out how this unique concert hall ticks
Last month I did something I’ve never done before. I went to two concerts in a day at Wigmore Hall. The Hall’s Director John Gilhooly was at both, resplendent in a smoky-pink linen suit (‘It’s 20-years old and I can still fit into it’, he says when I admire it, adding with a twinkle in the gentle Limerick brogue that must have helped clinch numerous delicate contract negotiations, ‘but I haven’t aways been able to!’). Gilhooly was clearly pleased with both concerts – the impressive young Spanish violinist María Dueñas at lunchtime, performing to a packed hall, and the Japanese pianist Mao Fujita playing Mozart in the evening to a pretty decent audience – and the enthusiasm of both (very different) audiences was infectious.
Wigmore Hall is unique, a gem with 545 seats that plays host to musicians at every stage in their careers, and nowadays in an invigorating range of musical genres that embraces jazz and world music, as well as educational work and many competitions. A week earlier Vox Luminis’s Bach B minor Mass had commanded a standing ovation; the day before, Byrd’s Masses had been presented over three concerts; the tenor Christoph Prégardien had been the focus of a short series of concerts and masterclasses; the Mao Fujita concert I attended was the first of five evenings devoted to Mozart’s piano sonatas and solo works (a really special occasion), and Igor Levit was due a couple of days later for a special concert for Friends of Wigmore Hall. In many ways, it’s a perfect barometer by which to gauge the musical health of one of the world’s great musical centres. ‘Well, it’s certainly not dull and I think anybody who suggests that it’s stuck, or that it’s only based around a Central European Viennese repertoire of a certain period, clearly doesn’t want to see what’s in front of them,’ Gilhooly says as we meet in the Hall’s restaurant early one evening before a concert.
‘The standard of the contestants in so many competitions these days is so high. Everybody in the final is going to do well’
One of the unique things about classical music is its constant re-explorations of a great musical opus. Whereas one production of, say, King Lear can be radically different from another, the degrees of variation between two interpretations (le mot juste) of, say, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier is relatively subtle – but it keeps artists and audiences returning to our concert halls night after night (and, of course, provides the fodder for Gramophone’s critics month and after month). ‘But it’s not just about different interpretations,’ Gilhooly points out. ‘It’s also about people at different stages in life – like Paul Lewis playing the Beethoven sonatas 20 years apart. That’s very interesting. Just to see that progression. I can’t wait for 20 years time to hear what Igor does with them. So it’s about fresh approaches to standard repertoire in the best possible hands.’
To those critics who point to a ‘fixed’, never-changing repertoire, Gilhooly points out that ‘each and every week, there is, I would say, at least one or two evenings dedicated to 20th- and 21st-century repertoire. There are always new artists. Today we had the Leonkoro Quartet here at lunchtime [playing Schulhoff and Ravel]. We streamed that live and the feedback is incredible. That’s very important. So I think the place has moved on in terms of the breadth of repertoire.’ And different genres, and different groups, clearly attracts different audiences. ‘Take solo piano concerts,’ Gilhooly invites as an example. ‘We’re doing over 90 piano concerts a year. That makes us the largest series in Europe, and that certainly wasn’t the case 20 years ago when we’d perhaps have 30 each year. But we’re in this Golden Age, take [the Cliburn winner] Yunchan Lim – astonishing. He came in January and we streamed the concert. I think it’s had a million views, and we offered to take it down as per the contract with him but he said, “No, leave it up.” He wrote to me directly and said, “I want it there because it was a very good concert.” So obviously a young person sees that as part of his brand. And that opened up a whole South Korean audience to us on online that I haven’t seen, but I also noticed that coming through in visitors when they’re in London. So you’ve an audience that comes just for the pianists, and they’re selling out. Or there’s an audience for difficult string quartets, so things like Carter, Ligeti, they’ll come to that, Bartók, late Beethoven. Solo piano, difficult string quartets, early music, Baroque, countertenors – they all have their followers. It’s really interesting.’
The one area, again with a dedicated – though smaller – audience, that has seen a marked change is song and Lieder. ‘You’ve a new generation of singers for whom song is absolutely central. Sure, 20 years ago you’d have people like Felicity Lott for whom song was very important, alongside oratorio and lots of opera. But now it seems to be very much integrated in so many young singers’ portfolio, as it were. That’s very heartening. So post-pandemic we’ve come back and the audiences are higher for every single series than they were pre-pandemic, which is very encouraging because it didn’t look like that a year ago. Everything was down 40 per cent. I suspect we’re slightly ahead of the curve here, but the hardest sell still is the song recital. I think there’s a barrier there that we might have to address in terms of surtitles or whatever – watch this space. And I don’t think it will take from the experience and I think the purist will just have to be quiet, frankly.’
‘What we have is a very broad, inclusive, diverse, interesting offering. We’re constantly looking for something new’
One figure that Gilhooly lobs into conversation is the amount of new music that Wigmore Hall presents, something that changed dramatically since his arrival as the Hall’s Director in 2005. ‘Very early on I pinned my colours to the mast in terms of contemporary music. And through my tenure so far we’ve spent £4 million on commissioning. So, apart from the BBC, if you look back on the history of commissioning over the last 20 years, we are the principal commissioner of new music in this country.’ And presumably a lone commission is not part of that strategy? ‘No, we’d never commission without partners – lots of partners – because it’s the only way to do it. I think it’s a waste to commission alone. So the rule here is that we won’t commission unless we have three other partners. And that can be Aspen, Carnegie Hall, it can be in Vienna or Amsterdam, so we’ve commissioned all over the world at this stage, on every continent, many, many times. I think it’s got to a stage where we’re almost doing too much commissioning because it’s now the largest contemporary music series in London. But the partnerships are so important because if you do it alone, first of all you’re commissioning only by your own taste. And secondly, if you’re consulting other halls and festivals internationally, it means you’re talking to those intendants about everything, not just contemporary music. So there’s lots of interchange, which I think keeps us all fresh. And it means the artists get a tour, and the repertoire gets more than one outing.’
Just as, I imagine, spy networks the world over constantly share information, so artistic administrators have open channels. ‘I talk to people all the time, and there are the agents you can trust – and those who can’t! And my inbox is full every day. I try to read everything. I’m not able to respond to everything but I listen to everything that comes through the door in some form, or delegate it if I can’t. And then it comes back to me if somebody here says, “You need to listen,” and I will. So everything gets listened to. If we’re sent a CD or a sound file, everything is assessed at some point. Sometimes we’re a few months behind because there are literally thousands a week coming in.’ And if the network of intendants constantly sharing information keeps everyone up to date, and au fait with promising talent, a second source of ‘fuel’ comes from competitions. (The reason I went to hear Mao Fujita’s Mozart concert was a direct result of hearing him throughout the various stages of the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 2019, where he took the Silver Prize behind Alexandre Kantorow.) ‘The standard of the contestants in so many competitions these days is so high, and juries are finding it very hard to decide. But that’s fine because it’s not just the winner who gets the spotlight. Everybody in the final is going to do well, and that to me makes competitions worthwhile. At Wigmore Hall, we’ve got our string quartet competition and we’ve our international song competition. Obviously we’ve got a huge link to Cardiff Singer of the World, and I chair the song prize jury there. And there are all sorts of one-off competitions during the year that come and go.’
If you ever go backstage at Wigmore Hall, and especially into the Green Room, you’ll be dazzled by the hundreds of signed photographs by music’s Greats. Gilhooly points out that when he first joined the staff of the Hall in 2000 as his predecessor William Lyne’s Executive Director, 60 per cent of dates were ‘for hire’ (where artists, promoters or managers simply booked the hall). Lyne had moved it from 100 per cent, and Gilholy has brought it to about five per cent – the Hall’s own promotions accounting for 95 per cent. ‘William arrived in ’57 and became Director in ’66. In 1976 he invited Arthur Rubinstein to play here – against the advice, very strong advice – of the Arts Council, who were his employees at the time. They didn’t want celebrity recitals and they didn’t want us to promote anything. So he broke the rules. And that’s the only bit of advice he ever gave me: “Keep breaking the rules”. So we break the rules. It’s a bit offensive, really, if anybody thinks that it’s programmed automatically or that it’s a very easy thing to do. What we have is a very broad, inclusive, diverse, interesting offering. We’re constantly looking for something new.’
When Lyne retired in 2003 he’d served 37 years as Director. John Gilhooly, who’s just turned 50, already has 23 years at Wigmore Hall under his belt, so a longer reign still is entirely within reach. I can think of worse places to turn up to every day and call ‘the office’ …
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