Dismiss the Wigmore Hall as exclusive and classical music as a spent force at your peril
Spanish salmonella is not usually on a list of favourite holiday souvenirs. But an attack of post-vacation food poisoning certainly worked to my advantage 10 years ago. Somebody brought me a copy of the Guardian while I was recovering, and I noticed an advert for a senior job at Wigmore Hall. Without that dodgy paella I might never have seen the ad, and I wouldn't be celebrating 10 years at the Wigmore next Thursday.
Wigmore Hall in central London was a place I had first discovered as a teenager growing up in Limerick. Our local schoolmaster, John Ruddock, promoted classical music concerts, often working with the hall to give artists the opportunity of dry run in Ireland before a major London performance. I remember my mother giving me the money to go to these special concerts. I heard Beethoven's late string quartets and each of Schubert's song cycles for the first time there, and I got to see many great musicians – András Schiff, Michael Collins, Wolfgang Holzmair and the Takacs String Quartet among them.
These were magical experiences. I gained an early appreciation of the beauty of the most intimate form of music-making and realised the importance of high standards in performing chamber music and song.
Since it opened in 1901, Wigmore Hall has been recognised among the world's most significant recital venues. Just about every great artist of the 20th century earned their recital credentials here. I joined, aged 27, as executive director, looking after all aspects of its management except programming, which was the responsibility of my predecessor as artistic director, William Lyne. Without William's single-minded determination over 40 years, there would be no Wigmore Hall today. He set our foundations, and I hope that I've inherited some of his style. William retired in 2003, and I became the venue's overall director two years later. He was a tough act to follow.
One of the biggest problems I faced was the venue's image. Stuffy? Exclusive? Absolutely not! We're well on the road to getting rid of the idea that it's stuffy. And it's time to knock on the head the idea that the hall is exclusive. Our audience comes from all walks of life and is increasingly spread across the ages. We could have ditched a musical vision for the future, put on a few lecture recitals and comedy gigs and accepted decline was inevitable. But we didn't do that – and instead we've raised ticket sales from 120,000 to 180,000 a year, and our radio broadcasts and the new Wigmore Live CD label attract listeners around the world. I wish the message would reach those pundits who recite the same tired old requiem for classical music. It's not dead; it's not even dying.
Our audiences expect to hear keystones of the Austro-German chamber repertoire. But I also want to introduce them to new experiences and draw all listeners deep into the music. So recent years have seen a jazz series of concerts curated by American pianist Brad Mehldau, contemporary music festivals and late-night experimental concerts. We do these things because we believe in them as passionately as we believe in presenting great artists in the core chamber music repertoire. It would be bad for us, bad for our audience and bad for London if we didn't invest in new music.
Another passion of mine is music from the great age of vocal polyphony, which is why Wigmore Hall is presenting William Byrd's sacred music over the next two years, the biggest celebration of his work ever promoted in London. It's been a real eye-opener to see how young audiences in particular are drawn to early music, which has in its turn been a pointer to ways of introducing younger people to Wigmore Hall's core programme.
In recent years, too, we've featured the work of György Kurtág, Kevin Volans Elliott Carter and James MacMillan, programmed days devoted to music by Judith Weir and Brett Dean, and appointed Julian Anderson as our next composer in residence (following Luke Bedford, the first to hold the position).
Growing the audience has been one of the great rewards. The challenge, now, is how to sustain it. You can never take the box office for granted, which means working hard every season to build new and relevant projects that are going to draw audiences to us.
You have to be prepared to make tough choices. This job, like many in music management, requires artistic nous, the ability to run a venue, business acumen, fundraising and marketing skills. I have to be the public face of Wigmore Hall and its leader; I need to negotiate sensitively and be able to win the day; to keep abreast of local and national politics, the politics of the music business, the politics of an audience and the politics of a board. And I have to deal with artists and agents and staff in all their infinite variety. It's like being a parish priest, governor of the Bank of England and constituency MP rolled into one.
Like many arts organisations, the Wigmore Hall is facing cuts to its public funding. We know we will have to work even harder in austere times. The culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has hinted that we are about to enter a golden age of arts philanthropy. I don't think donors in this country will respond well to being told by government that they should give more, particularly in times of economic austerity. Artistic vision and smart organisations encourage philanthropic giving, not government ministers pressing individuals to plug gaps in state subsidy.
I genuinely believe investing in the arts is for the common good. I also know it helps us pursue our vision of excellence, to take risks and extend our audience reach. Imagine this country's vibrant arts landscape diminished for the sake of short-term cuts, or London without one of its significant artistic institutions. We know how much the arts cost. It's time now to measure the value of what we do and shout loudly about it.
John Gilhooly is artistic and executive director of Wigmore Hall.
Jordi Savall (2 May)
The legendary Jordi Savall is the foremost proponent of the viola da gamba.
Pacifica Quartet (19 March)
Winner of the 2009 Grammy award for Best Chamber Music Performance, the quartet (right) is globally acclaimed for its exuberant performance style.
Daniel Barenboim (15 June)
Barenboim first appeared at Wigmore Hall at the age of 15, and will be welcomed back as he performs an all-Schubert programme.
Christian Gerhaher (14 May)
One of the most prominent baritones around today.
Stile Antico (15 July)
One of the new crop of vocal groups specialising in early music, Stile Antico won a Gramophone award in 2009 for its collection Song of Songs.
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