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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

William Lyne Retires - Sunset on a golden era

By Norman Lebrecht / September 25, 2002

In the early stages of my immersion in classical music, I lived near Baker Street and used to walk past Wigmore Hall quite often, dropping in occasionally on impulse to hear an evening recital. It was never a problem getting in. I would often find myself sitting five rows from my nearest neighbour, possibly the second violinist's maiden aunt. I used to clap furiously to compensate for the missing masses, hoping the string quartet or solo recitalist would be cheered by my solitary enthusiasm.

It was that sort of place: an Edwardian relic that no one, least of all its landlord, Westminster council, had a clue what to do with. Built by the Bechstein piano firm in 1901, the hall was expropriated as enemy property during the First World War, and functioned thereafter as a quarterpound bag of musical assortments. Available for hire, it veered from glamour nights with opera divas to a kind of coming-out venue for musical debutantes - pianists, violinists and singers - most of them well-bred and groomed for a glittering social debut but not destined for a professional career.

It was graced from time to time by an Arthur Rubinstein or a Victoria de los Angeles, who returned out of fond nostalgia for lost youth, but most nights it was the last resort of the jolly good trier from Surbiton or Santiago, hoping for a newspaper review that might catch the eye of a concert agent. Seldom has hope been more forlorn.

In the musical status league of the mid-20th century, the Wigmore ranked below the South Bank's bleak Purcell Room and on a par with the ascetic Conway Hall in Holborn, home of the South Place Ethical Society, where a violin and piano recital would be followed by a temperance meeting or a humanist convocation. The Wigmore was, in the modern sense of the term, seriously sad.

Its latter-day metamorphosis has been little short of miraculous, the more so since its management has been unchanged for 36 years. William Lyne, who has been in charge since 1966, is not one of your four-X Australians. In the waves of Antipodean asylumseekers that brought us Dame Edna; Saint Germaine; Sir Rolf Harris, RA; the present Master of the Queen's Musick, Malcolm Williamson; and Puppetry of the Penis, Bill Lyne passed unnoticed.

In fact, I have seen him sitting unnoticed at a dinner in his own honour. Lyne is not so much shy as invisible.

His gift, copied from the domestic dormouse, involves nuzzling up to little musical cheeses before they get too big to appear in chamber music recitals. With an unerring eye for talent, Lyne gave young artists a chance to shine in concentrated series of private passions. The pianist Andras Schiff will play the 32 Beethoven sonatas. The cellist Stephen Isserlis and pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, neither of them ostentatiously stellar musicians, produce their own cycles. The artist's voice is heard louder at the Wigmore than the manager's.

A dozen years ago, Lyne scrabbled together enough money to give the hall a makeover, adding a couple of hundred seats, a hospitality room and a gleam on the brass rails. When the Wigmore reopened in 1992 it was with a lorry-load of big cheeses.

Since then, the sold-out signs have gone up more nights than not. Vocal recitals played last season at 96 per cent capacity and chamber music at 90 per cent. Stars burst their stays for modest fees at the Wigmore out of gratitude and affection for Bill Lyne. Solid citizens chip happily into his fundraisers for much the same reason - and for a fraction of what they would get stung for at Covent Garden. The atmosphere is happily familial.

But now the sad news: the retiring Bill Lyne is about to retire. His farewell season is strewn with pearls - the pianists Schiff, Andsnes, Mitsuko Uchida; the Emerson, Lindsay and Belcea string quartets; the singers Barbara Bonney, Ian Bostridge, Juan Diego Florez, Matthias Goerne, Ann Murray, Thomas Quasthoff, Amanda Roocroft, Christine Schaefer and Andreas Scholl. Beat that, Carnegie Hall - or Berlin, for that matter.

A successor has been announced. His name is Paul Kildea and he is presently conducting Britten's The Turn of the Screw in Sydney at a singularly inauspicious moment. A few days ago, the board of Opera Australia decided not to renew the contract of the music director, Simone Young, in absentia (she was in Los Angeles). They accused her of being over-ambitious, which is a euphemism for overspending. When asked where they expected to find another conductor, a board spokesman said, in effect, "No worries - there's plenty more like her in Australia."

That may well be, but somehow most of them would rather work in London, where they are known in polite society as "Jaffas" - Just Another Effing Freelance Australian. At the latest count, we have Jaffas running the South Bank (Michael Lynch), the Royal Ballet (Ross Stretton), the Royal Ballet School (Gailene Stock) and half-a-dozen festivals. It's not surprising they call Australia the Empty Continent.

If Paul Kildea shuns the vacant opportunity in Sydney, he will return to a litter-strewn Wigmore Street that is in urgent need of a new broom. The strengths that Lyne bestowed are also weaknesses. His artists owe no loyalty to Kildea and the family atmosphere that he fostered is socially constrictive.

One tends to see the same faces at Wigmore Hall. A recent survey showed that seven per cent of its audience attends at least 10 times a year, three per cent 20 times and one per cent buys more than 40 tickets annually. Newcomers wandering in off the street can feel distinctly uncomfortable in a crowd of socialites who act as if they own the place. It feels, at times, much the same as Covent Garden before the Fall.

The challenge for Kildea is to generate surprise and attract new listeners without deterring loyalists. He may need to diversify. First-timers in the audience survey were keen to hear jazz. A dash of world music might pull in a more colourful crowd. The aimless young who walk past and wonder what's inside will need to be enticed by more than an Edwardian distraction. That era ends with Bill Lyne. We will not see its like again.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001