Tuesday 10 April 2018
John Gilhooly’s vision for Wigmore Hall extends far into the next decade and beyond. In this interview with classical music journalist Andrew Stewart, John outlines further dynamic plans to develop artistic quality, financial stability and audience diversity.
Wigmore Hall’s Chief Executive and Artistic Director delivers the makings of a modern manifesto in eight words. “This is no longer a hall for hire,” says John Gilhooly, “or at least, very rarely”. The headline leads to a summary of the new season, its themed concerts, special projects, artist residencies and Learning events, programmed in partnership with an array of world-class artists and promoted by Wigmore Hall. It also prefaces a statement of intent by a well-liked, creative leader committed to remain in post throughout the next decade, determined to realise a long list of plans and priorities. “I am excited about the future,” says John, “and I am very grateful for the ongoing help and support of the loyal audience who have done so much already, especially in the past 15 years.”
A glance at next season’s highlights confirms the strength and quality of an artistic programme built by and for Wigmore Hall. The pattern of work includes a bold mix of the mainstream and the unexpected, often combined in the same series and woven into programme strands that audiences can follow as the season unfolds. Florian Boesch opens the new season and launches the Hall’s comprehensive Schumann Song Series, set to run until July 2020. The Schumann focus continues with a Fauré / Schumann Series, led by Steven Isserlis and friends, and embraces the Elias String Quartet’s interpretation of the composer’s string quartets, at John’s invitation. American music runs through the season with the Escher String Quartet’s Journeys in the New World series and the complete string quartets of Elliott Carter, performed in one evening by the JACK Quartet, and there is a major residency for Vox Luminis, comprising landmark works by Schütz, Charpentier and Bach.
The Songmakers’ Almanac under the direction of its founder, Graham Johnson, makes a welcome return to Wigmore Street. “I was keen to revisit the best of their past programmes while bringing things up to date with fresh thinking, and Graham was up for the challenge” recalls John. “What we’re offering here, with major series and one-off performances, are very enjoyable, intellectually stimulating and spiritually uplifting concerts. Creating a sense of excitement around the programme is so important to the Hall’s future. That’s why, for instance, we’re fully committed to commissioning new work, building bespoke series in partnership with individual artists and ensembles, and sometimes with other international venues and festivals, bringing the programme to the widest possible audience.”
There is full commitment, too, from Wigmore Hall’s Director. He looks forward to a long period of development under his leadership. “This is my dream job,” observes Gilhooly. “The Hall is a magical place. I love it. I love the artists, the music, the staff and the audience. There are so many characters who add to the colour and complexion of the place, and they are all part of what makes Wigmore special. It’s a great joy to work here.”
John’s plans for the Hall pave the way for another 15 years of success. “I want to make Wigmore Hall as accessible and diverse as possible; I want us to raise a £10-15 million endowment fund by 2025, helped by legacy giving and a major appeal. And I want to take our programming to even higher levels. It’s been challenging to get where we are, and there have been a few bumps on the way. But I relish the opportunity to continue this great journey. I’m in for the long haul, and of course none of this can be achieved alone; the audience and staff have been incredibly supportive ever since I started here. And of course, we have an exceptional board of trustees who lead by example with their time and generosity.”
Ruling a line through many hall hires is emblematic of the venue’s artistic independence. It reflects, above all, confidence in a programme that delivers robust box-office business season after season. “Almost everything we do now comes directly under the auspices of Wigmore Hall,” notes John. “Every artist who appears here deserves to be included in one of our series. We can now build programmes and themes of the highest artistic quality and scope. It’s why the Hall now has the strongest audience anywhere for song, and promotes the greatest number of song recitals; we present around 60 concerts in our Early Music and Baroque Series, up from a dozen or so performances under a decade ago; our solo piano series is now the largest in Europe, while the number of string quartets appearing in the Hall has more than doubled along with their own unique audience, and we are able to develop themed series that run over several seasons and feature leading artists.”
Maintaining the status quo, he adds, is not an option, “I think that’s clear from how I have operated since 2005.” Wigmore Hall will always present concerts by the great names in chamber music and song. But it must also encourage those most likely to fill their shoes, to bring forward the stars of tomorrow. John speaks of 15 young singers armed with the vocal equipment and artistry required to sustain a full evening’s recital at the Hall, a high number by any measure. There’s also an abundance of fine young string quartets fit for dates at Wigmore Hall and a remarkable generation of pianists under the age of 35. “There’s a sense of tradition being continued and refreshed here,” he says. “I’m passionate about building audience trust so that they will support these incredible young artists. The quality threshold has been raised for everything we do, and that includes for young performers. Are they of the highest international standard? Will audiences in Vienna, New York, Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris want to hear them? We think in those terms, even when we’re supporting ‘local’ artists and ensembles.”
Promoting around 400 concerts each year by outstanding performers, whether established or emerging, carries a heavy price tag. The rising cost of Wigmore Hall’s artistic programme reflects the calibre of performers on the bill. John sees the figure more as investment than expenditure, something to be enhanced, not trimmed. “I remember when we were raising £400,000 for our own promotions, but our series was nowhere near as large as it is these days; our own promotions have increased by some 250 concerts. Now we need to raise £1.8 million annually to put on so many more concerts. That’s part of a much wider vision for Wigmore Hall, where we continue to set new standards, produce original programmes and broaden the repertoire with the world’s best artists, and create fresh goals tailored to this unique place. We want to set trends and break rules, and we want to preserve and promote the best of tradition, the timeless foundations of the life-enhancing artistry that our audiences value so much.”
Wigmore Hall’s building, unlike its programme, offers little room for expansion. Although much improved with recent refurbishment and backstage changes, public space remains at a premium. John’s long-term vision includes the prospect of securing the lease on an adjacent property, on Wigmore Street, Welbeck Way or Wimpole Street, to add capacity for additional hospitality facilities, a designated Learning space, a second restaurant and more. The idea also fits with the Mayor of London’s plans to transform Oxford Street, develop new public spaces in the Marylebone area and create a cultural hub at the heart of the West End. “We will wait for the right building to become available, so we can improve the concert-going experience” observes John. “We were involved from the start of the Oxford Street consultation process and are excited by the regeneration proposal, which has Wigmore Hall and the Wallace Collection at its heart. We’re the only concert hall in the West End, which gives us so many possibilities to reach out even further into the community. The consultation very quickly put to rest any concerns about congestion or noise issues on Wigmore Street, with an assurance that only two buses will be diverted past the Hall and will travel on the other side of the road. Local parking will also remain adequate for our needs.”
Growth is a constant in John’s analysis of Wigmore Hall, touching everything from programme plans and artistic ambitions to the physical environment and new audiences. “The Hall has never been more financially stable than it is now,” he comments. “Ticket sales continue to rise every season and we’re constantly seeing new faces coming through the doors. Sometimes people come here because they’re looking for a good night out; other people are looking to follow a series or residency as it develops. It’s important that we serve both groups, which is why I am so pleased with the breadth and depth of next season and those to come. I cannot thank the Friends of Wigmore Hall enough for making this transformation possible, and we look forward together to new challenges and opportunities as they arise. It’s very exciting for us all to be part of this wonderful Hall.”