The Wigmore Hall and the London Concert Scene

Why London's premier small concert hall remains at the heart of the capital's classical music scene

4 December 2007

Wigmore Hall

The Wigmore Hall has retained its distinction as the UK's premier venue for smaller scale concerts ever since it opened as The Bechstein Hall in 1901. A change in ownership during the First World War saw it renamed and reopened in 1917 in its current guise, but the interior is essentially unchanged, aside from an excellent refurbishment in 2004 which updated and upgraded the facilities.

The roster of artists who have appeared there is an extraordinary who's who of great names in classical and jazz music. My first visit was in 1997, a week after I had moved to London to commence my undergraduate studies in music. I looked into the hall's schedule as soon as I arrived in the city, knowing it by reputation as somewhere I should make a particular priority of visiting. Imagine my surprise when I saw that none other than Dame Joan Sutherland was billed as giving an interview in connection with the publication of her autobiography. Having discovered opera for myself some time after Dame Joan's retirement, I never expected to have the opportunity to see this artist at all and it was fantastic to experience her humour, humility and extraordinary presence first-hand. After frequenting events at the hall for ten years now, I can testify that they consistently come up with spectacles out of the ordinary, and for all their history and illustrious past, continuously present some of the most innovative programming of any concert hall I know.

The schedule each season is always characterised by variety. The size of the stage at the Wigmore Hall precludes the presentation of large scale, standard repertoire orchestral works - rather, it is the ideal chamber music venue. Within those parameters, the breadth of concerts on offer is outstanding, comprising chamber ensembles, early music groups, contemporary music, jazz musicians, and instrumental and song recitals. Almost every week presents both international stars and young artists who may be making their London debuts - in the space of two days in December, you can hear the Samling Foundation scholars, young singers fresh out of conservatoires, and a recital by the great American baritone, Thomas Hampson. What characterises and unifies all of the artists from these diverse fields who perform at the Hall is their outstanding quality.

The Wigmore Hall does a great deal in the furtherance of the careers of young performers starting out in the profession. Each year, there is the opportunity to hear the final two rounds of the Kathleen Ferrier Award for singers under 30, and The Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition, and be present at the discovery of some of the stars of the future. Quite apart from any prizes they win, the exposure this gives to the young artists is invaluable, as is the experience they enjoy of performing in what most people agree is close to the ideal acoustic, from both the point of view of those on stage and those in the audience.

There are a great many masterclasses for young musicians, led by some of the most celebrated names in their respective fields. I have been fascinated by those given by Brigitte Fassbaender and Barbara Bonney - two of the greatest lieder singers of recent times - and the December schedule features a masterclass with the legendary violinist Ida Haendel CBE that is free to attend.

Wigmore Hall: Ida Haendel, who will lead a masterclass

Some of the most remarkable work that goes on under the auspices of The Wigmore Hall is its community and education programme. This is extensive, and includes Chamber Tots - an interactive programme of workshops for children aged two to five, and, at the other end of the scale, Dementia Awareness / Music for Life which trains professional musicians to work with people with dementia. They also work with over forty schools per year. With a staggering three hundred and forty-seven community and education events in the 2006-07 season, the Hall really goes above and beyond in this field, thanks to the support of individuals, charitable trusts and companies, named on their excellent website.

One of the most exciting press releases made by the Hall came in August 2007, when the Director, John Gilhooly, announced that the Hall would be formally investing in commissions of new music in the years ahead. This is building on and continuing a long tradition of being at the cutting edge of classical music - part of the Hall's history of over a hundred years, which has included the first performances of works by Bartok, Britten, Copland and Debussy, and which has also seen Prokofiev, Poulenc and Kurtag perform their own works, to name just a few of the celebrated composers who have done so. Thomas Larcher has already been commissioned through this new series, but it has also been confirmed that Elliot Carter and Jörg Widmann will be spotlighted in the coming seasons. Such an initiative does a great service to the future of classical music in general, but also assures the Hall will continue as a living, evolving hub at the forefront of the art form, in no danger of stagnating or resting on its laurels.

The Wigmore Hall really is right at the beating heart of London's classical music scene and provides rich pickings for anybody who enjoys attending performances of live music. The combination of attractive programming with its relatively low capacity, which contributes to the brilliantly intimate audience experience to be had there, does mean concerts frequently sell out, so early booking is recommended for most events. However, the disappointment experienced when things are sold out is now mitigated to an extent by the advent of the Hall's own record label, Wigmore Hall Live, which allows you to buy a CD of a concert you may have missed - a fantastic innovation rapidly catching on with a number of international concert venues. That said, the staff at the hall do everything they can to make things accessible, with standing room and concessions for students and OAPs being available as far as possible. So whatever you are into, the experience of an event at the Wigmore Hall cannot be highly recommended enough. It shouldn't be too hard to find something you like the look of - the coming weeks see a recital with Dame Felicity Lott, a Louis Armstrong study day, and everything in between.

By John Woods