Aberrant kitchenware and lighting malfunctions are among the trials handled with care by Wigmore Hall’s expert team of House Managers. They tell Andrew Stewart about the job’s challenges and charms, and share their passion for pleasing the public.
Boredom could never dull the working life of a Wigmore Hall House Manager. The job exists to provide support to public and performers alike, solve problems swiftly, and help concerts run like clockwork. There are times, fortunately rare, when it might involve hunting for lost dentures, rescuing a live radio broadcast from extinction by replacing an ailing Steinway with one in perfect health, or figuring out why the house lights have failed. It always requires a savvy sense of humour and skills of tact and diplomacy to match those cultivated at the Court of St James’s.
Wigmore Hall’s House Managers rank among the venue’s finest assets. Their work often goes unnoticed simply because it has been done well. When things do go wrong, the House Manager is there to deal with complaints and restore calm. They are a public face of the Trust at concerts and they represent the Director in his absence. They are very much in the front line. Each knows what it is like to appear before an audience; each understands the importance of making the audience feel at ease.
‘You always prepare for the worst, then something totally unexpected happens. That’s when you say, okay, so how am I going to deal with this?’
Whether charming the public or dealing with a crisis, the House Managers are vital to the Hall’s creative ecosystem. ‘I always say to our ushers that we should be like a good referee in a football match,’ says Tarek Al-Shubbak. ‘If we do our job properly, then nobody sees us; it’s only when trouble arises that everybody starts looking for us!’
Tarek was raised on the Canary Islands where he aspired to become a pianist. ‘I was very happy in Spain, enjoying the sun and the food,’ he recalls, ‘but when my girlfriend said she was going to live in London, I decided to follow.’ He enrolled to study piano at Trinity College of Music and began settling in to his new life.
In need of work to support his studies, he called the Wigmore Hall House Managers’ number. Tarek joined the Hall’s team of ushers in 2003, was soon in demand as a page turner, and became House Manager a decade ago.
‘It’s a very entertaining job,’ he observes. ‘You always prepare for the worst, then something totally unexpected happens. That’s when you say, okay, so how am I going to deal with this?’ The question’s pressing nature became clear early in his career, during an all-Beethoven recital given by Till Fellner. All was going well until Tarek received a call from the backstage phone. Wigmore Hall Director John Gilhooly was on the line. ‘“You need to come at once,” he said. “There’s a noise coming from somewhere and it sounds very unusual.” I went into the auditorium and heard this persistent rumbling.’
The onstage performance was suspended while Tarek began his own remedial performance. He began by switching off the air-conditioning. The rumbling continued. He turned off the lights. The audience fell silent and the noise became more present. Several audience members pointed to a woman in Row A.
Tarek saw a light flashing from the John Lewis bag beneath her seat. Closer inspection revealed that its source was a foot-long, battery-powered pepper grinder, accidentally triggered and easily silenced.
‘When we got to the interval, people wanted to know what the noise was,’ reflects Tarek. ‘I used my best ‘Spanglish’ to tell them it was a vibrating device. I told one elderly couple that it was a vibrator and noticed that the lady immediately went white. “What’s a vibrator?” her husband asked. “I’ll tell you when we get home, dear,” she said. My English has improved since then, I’m glad to say!’
Clear communication comes naturally to Natalie Wallace. She started her career as an actress but found the work and lifestyle draining – now at the Hall she is in her element!
‘There’s never a dull moment – every day is different.’
Natalie recites a long list of her duties, which includes everything from greeting artists to meeting the scheduling needs of all Wigmore Hall departments. ‘It’s a small venue but it’s one of London’s busiest,’ she observes. ‘You’re managing hundreds of events over a season. Audiences will see us managing the front-ofhouse team, looking after the health and safety of everyone in the building, and making sure the concert goes on stage. But that’s really only a small part of what we do.’ In addition to overseeing events, the House Managers care for the daily business of running the building, keeping it clean, supervising minor repairs and chasing down electrical faults, together with planning and managing refurbishment work.
Sokol Priftaj started work at Wigmore Hall as a commissionaire soon after graduating in Music from Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. He returned to the Hall as a House Manager a year ago, and continues to draw on the invaluable experience he gained as a music student. During his time in Cambridge, Sokol performed as a solo pianist, accompanied singers, and taught and coached children for graded piano exams. His direct knowledge of the stresses and strains of performance has helped him cultivate good relationships with artists and promoters, as well as Wigmore’s audiences.
Sokol has turned pages for such distinguished artists as Mitsuko Uchida, Martha Argerich, Malcolm Martineau, Julius Drake, Graham Johnson and Roger Vignoles, and worked hard to ensure that they enjoy a relaxed and supportive backstage experience. ‘Dame Mitsuko was so pleased with my page turning once,’ Sokol recalls, ‘that she gave me a bottle of champagne – one of two she received after one of her sold-out concerts at Wigmore Hall.’ As a practical and highlyvalued team member, Sokol can turn his hand not only to assisting artists or lightening their post-concert champagne load, but also to fixing just about anything that needs fixing around the building.
There’s never a dull moment – every day is different,’ says Natalie. ‘There’s a community feel here around the artists and our audience regulars. Of course, it doesn’t always run smoothly, but whatever it is, we have to deal with it. And we do receive odd requests at times.’ The latter, she adds, often come from exhausted parents during Chamber Tots sessions. The house management team came to the rescue one morning after rattling and gurgling sounds emerged from one of the buggies parked in Wigmore Hall’s foyer. ‘One parent had forgotten to take their baby into the auditorium! We took it in our stride, like we always do.’
This article was originally published in The Score magazine in Autumn 2018. The magazine is curated exclusively for Friends of Wigmore Hall and is published 3 times a year. To find out more about Friends of Wigmore Hall please visit here