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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Let the concert wars commence

By Norman Lebrecht / October 1, 2008

From this week on, it’s going to be string quartets at dawn. The opening of a chamber music venue at Kings Place, round the corner from the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras, puts a feral cat into the whispering dovecote of smaller musical species.

With 100 events in five days, starting 9 am tomorrow, Kings Place is playing all day and all ages, from late-breakfast to late-night, students to seniors at sensible prices, sometimes free. Concerts will run simultaneously in two bijou oak halls, of 420 and 220 seats, and there are art galleries to browse and bars to graze in the intervals. What’s not to like?

If I were running the Wigmore Hall, centrepiece of London’s chamber music world, I’d be losing sleep wondering how to compete. The Arts Council estimated a few years back that there are no more than 30,000 devotees of solo recitals and string quartets in the greater metropolitan region – hardly enough to sustain one hall year round, let alone two. Kings Place, what’s more, has the Guardian newspaper in the same building, using its halls for political debates and blowing a trumpet for its merits. The Wigmore only gets attention when a mega-star is on its stage.

Still, when I ran into the Wigmore’s director John Gilhooly last week, he seemed pretty well rested and distinctly upbeat. Gilhooly, 35, added artistic control of the Wigmore to his managerial role when the Australian who was supposed to be making the programmes was seldom around to be asked. In three years of one-man rule, Gilhooly has almost cleared up to the last few grand the £3 million that will pay off all debts on the building and guarantee its future independence. He has launched a CD label with 21 releases so far and has produced record attendances: box-office up 25 percent last year and a tripling of first-time attenders, a vital statistic if the Wigmore is to escape its unfortunate typecasting as a coffee club for the comfortably semi-retired.

Unfortunate – and often true, for there is a type of Wigmore artist that pitches perfectly to the nostalgia brigade and gives the hall its deep tone of blue rinse on nights when certain well-known pianists are playing Schubert and Brahms. The need to rejuvenate is high priority and things seem finally to be shaking down.

Andre Hoffmann, grandson and heir of the Swiss pharmaceutical giant, has given money for 50 new commissions over the next six years and the Wigmore has installed Luke Bedford, 29, as composer in residence. There are schools concerts, family concerts and intensive study days. The selling image is scarved students on bicycles beneath the Edwardian street canopy.

Contrary to widespread assumption, the Wigmore gets by on a fairly low level of subsidy - £250,000 from the Arts Council and £15,000 from Westminster – which does not go far towards paying the handsome fees of international singers and soloists, who are besieged by even higher bids from the South Bank and Barbican, and are sometimes signed by them to exclusive deals. Behind the genteel frontage, there is a war on for top talent.

The Wigmore’s advantage is that it is loved by soloists, which cannot be said of the South Bank or Barbican. It offers immaculate sound, an ethereal ambience and an attentive staff. That is how it retains the likes of Radu Lupu, Andras Schiff, Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis; Angelika Kirschläger and Anne-Sofie von Otter; Matthias Goerne and Thomas Quasthoff. It has the best young quartets of the moment in the Belcea, Casals, Jerusalem and Pavel Haas. There is no better place in Britain to hear a Schubert Lied, a Bartok quartet, or a Ligeti Etude.

The rest is done with smoke and mirrors. About 120 nights a year are ‘hires’, which means the Wigmore can be booked by anyone who wants to make a London splash, or by her wealthy uncle. Such debuts gave the hall a dreadful name in the 1970s, when critics deserted in droves, but three decades of quality have allowed the present regime to raise the bar. Demand for hires is so high that it can now turn away wishful amateurs, while closely advising the more promising newcomers in their first steps on a major stage. The hall plays an invaluable role as incubator of future stars.

None of this is going to be affected by the advent of Kings Place where, for all the wealth of events in its opening festival, the collection of artists is fairly low-key. Peter Millican, the building’s north-eastern developer, is also artistic director of the halls. The hard hat does not necessarily fit with the more nebulous craft of picking the best performers for the right mix of works. Millican appears to have turned mostly to artists of his own inevitably limited acquaintance.

The Kings Place Beethoven cycle is led by the French pianist Jean-Bernard Pommier and the Orion Quartet. The Classical Opera Company will do selections from Mozart and Haydn. The London Chamber Music Society presents the Chilingarian Quartet, there is a pair of gigs with film composer Jocelyn Pook and there will be student groups from the Royal Academy of Music – nothing that would top a West End bill.

Rather more trenchant are the deals Millican has done with the London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, giving them free office space in exchange for South Bank-calibre performances. Kings Place is also offering a much-needed London outlet to series from Aldeburgh and other music festivals. It fulfils a useful function but it remains to be seen if Millican can sustain quality and quantity all year round at a time when consumer belts are tightening and banks are on the blink

Deep down, I suspect the Wigmore Hall secretly welcomes the competition. Gilhooly has already proposed a joint educational venture, which may or may not come off. The initiative is shifting back to the high ground. Whatever the year-end outcome, whether Kings Place thrives or struggles, its very existence serves to demonstrate how central and essential the Wigmore Hall has become to London’s cultural ecology.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

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



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