New Music Plans for the Wigmore Hall

Interesting interview in the Times this morning with John Gilhooly, director of the Wigmore Hall – “the West End’s unlikeliest success story”:

At a time when London’s theatres, concert halls and even certain opera houses seem to be offering nothing except easy-listening soufflés in a desperate effort to pull in the crowds, the Wigmore Hall – spiritual home of highbrow chamber music and classical song – has announced a sixfold increase in its surplus, a 25 per cent growth in income, a 300 per cent rise in first-time visitors, and the highest attendance levels in its 106-year history.

The most gratifying thing about this outstanding success is the part played by new music. As Gilhooly says,

Last year I programmed three concerts of György Kurtág’s music. My trustees cautiously said: ‘Let’s see how it goes.’ But the concerts almost sold out. What’s more, 80 per cent of the audience were newcomers. This thing about the Wigmore being an exclusive club really irritates me, because it’s simply not true. We are acquiring a huge new constituency.

Bingo – and you can count me among those newcomers. Actually, my experience of the Kurtágs playing extracts from Játékok at the Wigmore, as well as Radius’s recital of a range of contemporary works, warmed me to the idea of the Wigmore as a venue for new music. For one thing, it’s a really good size for it – trying to fill the Barbican, RFH or Albert Hall (!) with some of this repertoire is a fool’s errand. Filling the Wigmore’s 540 seats is a much more realistic prospect. But secondly, the legendary acoustic really is worth its reputation. Radius’s performance of Cage’s Five was a revelation, so rare is it for works like this to be given a hearing in such acoustically friendly surroundings. Oh, how I would love a concert of Wandelweiser composers in here. Or Nono, or Lachenmann, or Feldman, or Lucier, or …
The best news about the Wigmore’s recent change in direction towards the new is that this is just the beginning. Gilhooly has big plans:

From 2009 the hall will be commissioning and premiering up to 12 pieces of chamber music each year – a huge financial commitment that will be paid for by a new endowment fund. In addition, Gilhooly will present a twice-yearly festival devoted to a living composer. There are giants among them. The 91-year-old Henri Dutilleux is featured this season, and the (by then 100-year-old) Elliott Carter in 2008-09, with all five of his string quartets being played in a day.

Long may it continue.

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