As part of a wide-ranging special issue of Classical Music Magazine, Wigmore Hall Director John Gilhooly gave an interview (below) exploring the themes of his guest editorship – from the roles of the concert hall in the 21st century to the need for inclusivity – and suggests there’s plenty of reasons to be positive about the future of classical music.
You joined Wigmore Hall in 2000 and have been at its helm since 2005. How has the job of running a classical music venue changed over this period? What are the biggest challenges you see looking ahead?
There are different challenges every day: some are constants, such as maintaining artistic quality, which is paramount, but I suppose the biggest increasing pressure is fundraising, both for capital and revenue projects. When I was first appointed, we needed to raise £350,000 each year to cover a limited number of own promotions, and the Hall was still available to hire on many evenings. That has all changed now and we have over 450 of our own promoted concerts every season, at our own risk, and we need to raise £2 million to underpin this series, particularly as public funding becomes increasingly scarce. We also bring in £4 million in ticket sales and receive just over £300,000 per year as part of ACE’s national portfolio – a small percentage of our turnover, but much needed and put to good use.
Balancing the amount of time I spend on programming our own series and giving artistic direction alongside daily fundraising meetings is the greatest challenge and the biggest pressure as CEO of Wigmore Hall, or anywhere else in music, I suspect. Whilst difficult work, this upward financial curve has enabled us to do rewarding things, especially in our learning and outreach activity, which embodies the idea of Wigmore Hall as a hall for everybody.
And then you need to be on top of the current legislation and administration, whether it’s health and safety, GDPR, Arts Council applications, or other bureaucratic curveballs, there’s always something new to adjust to or implement.
Getting to grips with social media and how we advertise and promote ourselves in a digital world is also a challenge but hugely rewarding. What the new digital world means for the future of our Gramophone Award-winning record label, Wigmore Hall Live, is currently exercising our minds, as the ecology of the recording industry continues to change. Staff turnover can also be challenging, but I’m very lucky in that I have many loyal, long-serving senior managers.
Watching Wigmore Hall’s audience grow from 120,000 to 200,000 attendances per year and seeing the age profile and demographic broaden over time has been a source of great joy, but there is of course more work to be done. Perhaps the biggest challenge in classical music that we all face is to continue to make it relevant in the 21st century and to dispel any lingering notions of elitism. No arts venue or institution has all the answers to this, but we must keep trying and never give in to the prophets of doom!
One particular challenge for Wigmore Hall is a lack of space. We need better public circulation, entertaining, rehearsal and learning spaces. So when an appropriate adjacent property becomes available we must be ready to pounce. It could be five or more years away, but with careful buy-in, planning and fundraising, we will be ready.
As guest editor, you've brought in voices from territories overseas – namely New York's Carnegie Hall and the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin. How relevant to the UK context are the experiences of these venues, and what can a venue like WH learn from them?
As Artistic Directors, we need to be alert and open to what’s going on at all major venues, all over the world, at all times. We all need to collaborate and share with each other and to inspire each other. For example, I am deeply impressed by what Carnegie Hall is doing for young offenders, particularly around the time of their first offence, working closely with the police and law enforcement. Sir Clive Gillinson and Sarah Johnson have built up powerful, creative workshops in correctional settings. Through a partnership with the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network in LA, arts leaders have come together to consider how our industry can be used in juvenile justice settings. Its goal is to advance reform amongst young offenders through the power of the arts. This work in the US already has a positive impact and we can learn lessons from it here. Look at the social problems in London and throughout the UK – knife crime and drug gangs for instance – of course the arts can always play a role in changing people’s lives, if we try to make it accessible to all.
It has also been a pleasure to see how the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin has already attracted 17,000 subscribers since its opening just over a year ago. Clever, high-quality programming will always draw in good audiences, even in an overcrowded market. There is, of course, no room for duplication or mediocrity in Berlin, New York, London or indeed any other major city.
Diversity and social mobility is another theme that you have put on the agenda, both at WH and through your work with the RPS. Do you think classical music is doing enough to address these issues? If not, what else could (and should) be done?
No, we are not doing enough about diversity and barriers to entry at every level in the industry. But I am also concerned that some are taking a very narrow view of what diversity actually is. It comes in many forms: gender, sexuality, disability, age, race, creed, social and economic background, and of course native land. And there is also diversity of repertoire and audience. Helping a young singer from Poland or South America to become a company member at the Royal Opera House is just as important as helping a disadvantaged youth from Grimsby or the East End. We still need a step change towards becoming more diverse in every respect. And whilst contemporary associations between class and music are not fully understood, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that most classical musicians and audiences come from the middle classes – as detailed brilliantly in The Classical Music Industry (Routledge). We just need to look around us at any industry conference to confirm that our profession is comfortably middle class. We must strive to fully understand why professional young musicians or aspiring administrators are put off by a perceived pecking order and if class and gender do indeed influence people’s choices about entering our profession. Do we inadvertently or otherwise intimidate those we feel do not fit in? If so, it’s a huge shame and small wonder that the middle class seem to have a monopoly in classical music.
The picture nationally is somewhat depressing, because millions of young people from all backgrounds are still excluded from the arts. And there is only so much that we can do as a sector: it needs joined up national central thinking from the government. The National Campaign for the Arts (NCA) has done wonderful work in this regard and the oboist Nicholas Daniels is leading the charge for music education, but our argument needs to be heard and heeded at the highest level. Musicians should be encouraged to embrace difference and take artistic risks. We all need to see things differently, working with new people and engaging with a wider public.
The ideal of course is a classical musical world where we don’t have to think of quotas, where we get rid of unconscious bias, and where we don’t have to speak up for BME groups or women administrators, composers and conductors, but unfortunately it is probably at least several decades away. Many of us wish we could wave a magic wand and make it happen sooner. There is no excuse, and the work starts now. We need to champion diversity and social mobility, day in, day out, to make it a reality in our own generation and for future generations. Clearly unconscious bias exists, even if some around us deny that it does, and if quotas help us to rid ourselves of our biases then so be it! I suspect anybody in the industry who doesn’t embrace this will quite rightly be left behind.
Diversity takes many forms. Earlier this year, I met the only professional string quartet in Turkey, and it was striking and humbling to learn that, as they travel as a quartet across major towns and cities in Turkey, they are very often giving the first performances of Beethoven’s late quartets in those places. (It’s hard to imagine premieres of Beethoven in 2018, but it’s happening). For many over the world our music and our great tradition is yet to be discovered – we are very lucky to have what we have in this country, but we need to share it as widely as possible.
It’s also vital that we introduce new works and diverse repertoire to audiences. Recently I have been able to champion four 20th century Polish composers (two female, two male) whose chamber works haven’t been performed very much in the UK. Audiences at Wigmore Hall responded brilliantly to this programming strand. That is valuable diversity too.
The remarkable work of Chi-chi Nwanoku has done so much to highlight the need for diversity on stage. But one of the unexpected results of her work is not only visibly more diverse musicians on the concert platform but also the speed at which a new diverse audience has grown around Chineke!. We all need to get behind work such as this to see it blossom even more.
You are chairman of the Royal Philharmonic Society which is under the immediate patronage of Her Majesty The Queen. How important is royal patronage to classical music, and why?
I think that Royal Patronage is a great thing; the Duke and Duchess of Kent, Princess Alexandra, the Duchess of Gloucester and others have been exemplary in supporting music and music charities over the years. We need as many visible role models as we can get (including Sheku Kanneh-Mason who, as soloist at the recent royal nuptials, hopefully became a new role model to many aspiring young musicians) helping to displace any notions of music being for only one type of person. And we need to create the conditions so that people from any background get the time and space – often decades of study and practice – that it takes to become a top classical musician.
I find it deeply offensive that politicians in the UK run a mile when they see a photographer taking a snap of them at the opera, ballet or at a concert, whilst leaders of France, Austria and Germany in particular, are very happy to be visible patrons in the arts. There have been only a handful of good culture ministers in this country in recent decades. As politicians come and go, patronage from the Royal Family, which is a constant, cannot be a bad thing. Whilst royalty doesn’t necessarily get close to fundraising, their very presence at events often helps in this regard. And the care taken by the Royal Family when visiting and interacting with people in our outreach programmes (people living with dementia for instance) is very humbling to behold. So let’s hope that the new generation of royals shows some interest in what we do, especially around diversity, and let’s hope that politicians see music’s wider social, cultural and educational value.
Pre-concert talks are just one of the ways in which today's classical musicians can engage with audiences on a more personal level than artists of yesteryear. To what extent do you feel it is necessary to vary the traditional format of concerts in this way? What other approaches can work well?
There will always be a place for the traditional concert format, but working in other settings is very exciting too, attracting very different audiences. We need to better understand why individuals do not attend traditional classical concerts or are put off by them. Sometimes traditional classical music audiences can be unwelcoming and that can be a major turn-off for newcomers. The sense of ownership that somebody who has attended the same venue or opera house for decades gives off to first-timers can sometimes be a problem. Feelings of welcome, inclusion and of participation in a shared experience are far more likely to encourage people to enjoy a performance and to come back again. Sometimes spoken introductions from the stage can play a great role in enhancing new audiences’ (or even regular attendees’) experiences of a musical event.
The Royal Philharmonic Society has already given awards to many promoters and organisations that have changed the landscape of classical music by presenting music in a multi-storey car park for instance and even opera on the beach. Often alternative venues inspire new styles of music and listening. We should not be sniffy about such initiatives. Remember that from the 16th to 18th century traditional spaces for chamber music included courts, small public concert halls and churches, but musicians also performed regularly in alternative venues like coffee shops, taverns and pleasure gardens.
Alternative venues are nothing new and we should embrace performances in bars and clubs just as much as on a traditional stage, working alongside the great traditional concert and opera venues to help push classical music in a new direction. Already it is helping foster a better understanding of our art form. But everybody knows that we cannot and will not abandon the traditional format. It’s best if we aim for a good mixture of both.
It's sometimes said that classical music is in a 'crisis'. Is there any truth in this, or do you feel there are plenty of reasons to be positive about the future?
I am very positive about the future of classical music. There have never been so many concert halls, orchestras or opera houses in the world. And audiences are coming and filling them, from New York to Berlin, and more recently closer to home at Saffron Hall, a state school. Music can be a huge part of even more people’s lives, and with the right approach everybody can be given the opportunity to enjoy music as a part of their daily lives, no matter who they are or where they live. Over the past decade in particular, I have noticed how musicians want to be different and to approach how we engage with diverse audiences in a different way. Musicians are already placing more trust in audiences, realising creative ideas for everybody. There is such an awareness now of the importance of encouraging and nurturing the next generation and making classical music relevant to even more people. We have a diverse repertoire to share with a diverse population. Making great strides in all of this will be a source of collective pride in our industry. Nobody working in classical music sees this work as an add on or optional extra any more. The challenge is to get government ministers to think in the same way.
Over the past five years, I have been greatly inspired by the work of Saffron Hall in Saffron Walden: a shining beacon in our musical world, and a welcome and much needed boost to the music industry – something of which its founders and its audience should be very proud. This hall represents unique values and is proof that anyone can access world-class music in the arts and anyone can aspire to perform at the highest standards. The entire industry should be conscious of what’s going on in Saffron Walden, and in time this sort of enterprise should be repeated right across the country and internationally. It is truly extraordinary that such life-enhancing work is taking place in a state school setting.
The Cultural Learning Alliance recently issued a report called ImagineNation which clearly states that the arts empower children and that access to the arts and culture is access to our national life, and is the universal right of every child and every citizen, regardless of class or race. Intellectual skills and emotional intelligence gained through exposure to the arts and music, acquired over time, help children to form their own ideas, images and values and give them a broader view of the wider world. By giving children and families ownership of the arts and culture, they feel more confident in their ability to create, challenge and explore and to be part of society and make change happen. Tragically, children denied access to the arts can feel locked out and often left behind. I believe it is vital to enable people at all stages of life, regardless of background or circumstance, to take part in cultural activity. As a community, Saffron Walden now incorporates and celebrates music in its local life, offering the same opportunities for everybody to participate, whatever their background. This is the sort of story that should inspire everybody in our industry.
Class and gender are highly formative in determining young musicians’ and young administrators’ career decisions. Inequality based on social, cultural and economic resources is a huge problem as it creates barriers to entry. Until we have lots of “Saffron Halls” all over the country and change our own mentality, our industry and our stages are likely to be populated mainly by the middle classes. Let’s get moving with a step change to fix this.