Programme, notes: supporting the new Wigmore Hall series

Wigmore Hall’s Spring Series is now well under way. That’s right – an entire season of concerts, programmed as if concerts as we know them were actually happening.

Obviously, there are some differences: for example, the venue is still silent at the weekends, unthinkable in virus-free times. And most glaringly, of course, there will be no physical audiences. Instead, we can enjoy these stylishly-filmed, and impeccably-recorded events remotely, from the comfort of our own laptops or smart TVs.

Despite the technical brilliance behind the scenes, and total commitment from the artists in such strange conditions, the absence of applause is a pointed, poignant reminder that this is not the way things should be. However, until we can get back to our favourite haunts in person, I believe it’s vital – for our own mental and musical nourishment, as well as the survival of the venues – to celebrate and support online performance.

And even though it came when perhaps we were least expecting it, we are probably at a pivotal moment for the ongoing consumption of live music. I’ve speculated before that even when audiences flock back to venues – and I’m sure they will – the potential for outreach and profile/awareness raising through maintaining an online ‘live’ presence is immense.

I’m a great believer in giving equal respect to all types of music, and that one of the best ways for a rookie to approach classical music is to treat it no differently from any of the genres they already know and love. Don’t be afraid to be artist-led: if you find a singer or player who resonates and appeals to you, investigate their catalogue and discover a range of works and composers through them. There are no rights and wrongs – it’s fine to be knocked sideways by an obscurity, or left cold by one of the ‘greats’. Just like folk, rock or jazz, there will be some works that chime with you instantly, and others that you decide (or not) to spend time with and get to know.

Work involving smaller forces – compared with, say, a full-orchestra symphony or concerto – can seem more ‘immediate’ to listeners feeling their way. I certainly found art song (still my greatest classical music love) or solo instrumental music easier to grasp: all the richness and complexity you could want are there, but without the sheer scale and density of full orchestral works, that can take a bit more getting used to.

And so we come full circle: because if you wanted a fuss-free way to dip a toe in the classical music ocean, the Wigmore Hall broadcasts are an excellent place to start. There are some 40 gigs in the series: at the time of writing, 35 are still to come… but as long as you don’t tarry too long, you can watch past concerts on ‘catch-up’ for several weeks after broadcast through the Wigmore Hall website, its YouTube channel or its Facebook page.

A look at the new season

It’s hard to know where to start with recommendations. It’s the kind of line-up where it breaks my heart to leave anyone out – but of course, I can’t list everything. So, on the understanding I’m attempting to operate with a certain level of focus here…

For an art song devotee, there’s much to savour. For example, Joseph Middleton and Christopher Glynn are highly inventive and inspirational collaborative pianists and they both perform twice during the series.

Middleton is first up on Friday 5 March, with soprano Carolyn Sampson. For me, this is much like a long-awaited gig by a favourite band. The programme promises enticing selections from their upcoming Schumann (Clara *and* Robert) disc surrounded by further intriguing choices which build on some of their earlier duo albums. An absolute must. Then, hot on the heels of their new CD ‘A Musical Zoo’, he appears with bass-baritone Ashley Riches on Wednesday 24 March.

Glynn’s collaboration with soprano Claire Booth includes two enchanting discs focusing on songs and piano music by Grainger and Grieg… before they created a lockdown tour-de-force under David Pountney’s direction in a filmed dramatisation of Poulenc’s ‘La voix humaine’ (in English translation) for Welsh National Opera. They’re bringing this live to the Wigmore on Wednesday 10 March: opportunities to hear the piano/voice version of this one-woman opera do not come around too often, and in the hands of this duo – unmissable. He also performs with mezzo Kathryn Rudge on Monday 15 March, bringing to life their discs focusing on English (language) song, and more.

When you do explore Wigmore output online, don’t forget to look back and check if you’ve missed anything. Still available at the time of writing, for example, is a perfect example of the kind of evening the Hall curates and presents so well: mezzo Alice Coote and pianist Christian Blackshaw mesmerising in songs by Tchaikovsky, joined by Ralph Fiennes reading from poetry set and letters written by the composer.

I’m also drawn magnetically to solo piano concerts… Again, lots to choose from, but leaping out at me are Leon McCawley’s programme of Grieg, Schubert and Schumann on Friday 19 March and Kathryn Stott’s kaleidoscopic mix of Bach, Grieg, Fauré, folk song, Wagner and Gershwin on Wednesday 31 March. I also want to catch Isata Kanneh-Mason on Monday 8 March, to hear two composers I know little or nothing about – Klouda and Gubaidulina – alongside music by C Schumann.

Of course, other instruments are available, and another backward glance reveals the latest streamed concert from guitarist Sean Shibe. Keeping to acoustic classical guitar this time (his forays into contemporary compositions for electric guitar are uncompromising and unforgettable), the programme still ranges widely across the centuries, from Dowland’s lute music to an operatic adaptation from Thomas Adès. Charismatic, utterly involving playing and a joy to watch and marvel at in close-up.

I barely have room to scratch the surface of the chamber concerts before my word count rears up and hits me with a big stick – but it’s always worth seeking out performances by Jonathan Cohen’s early music collective Arcangelo, who appear twice, with some stellar guests. Violinist Alina Ibragimova joins them for a programme of Bach, Corelli, Locatelli and Vivaldi on Friday 26 March, then a few days later on Tuesday 30 March, they perform Pergolesi’s ‘Stabat Mater’ with countertenor Iestyn Davies and soprano Carolyn Sampson.

There are at least 25 concerts I haven’t been able to include – so I urge you strongly to visit the Wigmore Hall website and investigate further.

Please enjoy music responsibly

A final topic to end on: Wigmore Hall has made these concerts available for free, with requests for donations. I cannot stress enough how important these donations are.

As you would expect, the arts industry has innovated all kinds of creative responses to the pandemic, some of which has involved directly monetising online performances – for example, that seems a more understandable model for, say, the lieder festivals (such as Oxford and Leeds) where work goes on all year round but the concert income only materialises in ‘bursts’ when the actual events are taking place.

There are no right or wrong answers. And with hindsight, it’s worth noting that the system was hardly perfect before COVID, with arts outfits universally relying on donation and patronage to top up income from sales (in the absence of greater government support). That’s before we even get started on the plight of the musicians – employed or freelance – generating these sales in the first place.

I believe Wigmore Hall’s director, John Gilhooly, to be a true philanthropist in his sphere. He is honouring the awareness-raising / outreach aspect of the Hall’s work by offering the concerts for free. There is recognition here that some people, who genuinely cannot afford to pay a ‘ticket price’, may still have online access to these broadcasts that could enrich a lonely lockdown existence and vitally enhance listeners’ mental wellbeing. At the same time, he has so far been able to commit to pay every artist performing in the series in full.

Some people may argue that Wigmore’s prestige is a huge factor in this – thanks to its stature, history, location and so on, it must have sufficiently reliable income from long-standing benefactors. But that same prestige will also help make many aspects of running the Hall even more eye-wateringly expensive. I think the calculations and decisions around the ‘go / no go’ of the enterprise must have been lengthy, complex and agonising.

I think it’s vital for those of us who can afford to donate to remember that when you support any venue, you don’t just support ‘music’ in the abstract, or those who make it. You help pay for the building’s overheads and upkeep, the salaries of the staff who keep the physical entity going, the roles that ‘disappear’ into the overall aesthetic experience (how often do we stop to think about those who keep the ‘virtual’ box office going, who assemble the programme notes, who constantly update the website…) We need to consider the sheer reach of the virus’s negative impact on all these people – then flip it over into the positive impact our donations can have.

A bit of maths – and please note, numbers are not my strong point. Wigmore Hall’s capacity is 545. Not all concerts sell out, though many do. Ticket prices are in a hierarchy from around the £35-40 mark down to £16-20. Let’s say – and this is horribly simplistic – the Hall sells out a gig with an average ticket price of £28 a seat. Its box-office take is 545 x 28 = £15,260. Let’s call it £15K.

On YouTube alone (so that’s excluding people who tuned in through the Hall’s own site or Facebook), the Coote / Blackshaw / Fiennes concert had so far attracted just over 7,500 views. The sums conveniently reveal that each person watching could give just £2 for the Hall to reach something resembling its normal box-office.

Many give much more than this: I know of people that try to donate the usual ticket-price for each gig they watch. That’s brilliant. Full disclosure – one of the weird ‘positives’ here is that I can ‘see’ many more concerts under these circumstances than I could ever afford to go to in person. (I think this realisation will be a key part of defining attitudes to ‘virtual attendance’ post-virus, when I suspect many people will want to mix it up between going to some gigs and staying home for others.) So I plan to work out a decent overall sum that at least reflects multiple visits to the Hall per season. But the reality is that a lot of listeners – whatever their financial situation – won’t donate anything.

For me, I think it boils down to: please give to wherever you receive; support what you enjoy.

  • If you’re going to watch some of the Wigmore gigs, the Wigmore should receive at least some of your cash.
  • If another venue or organisation is catering to your listening needs, please show it more than just love.
  • If you don’t really do ‘live’, but immerse yourself in recorded works instead, buy the CDs your favourite artists release. Where possible, buy them from the artist directly (on Bandcamp, for example), or more commonly in the classical world, from the record label.
  • If you no longer buy physical music, don’t let that put you off. Recommended retailer Presto Music (as well as many of the record labels themselves) will offer high-quality downloads.
  • If you just feel strongly that the music industry shouldn’t be brought to its knees by this crisis, donate to an organisation like Help Musicians who will put your gift to good use.

It’s never been more important to put our money where our ears are.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s