“That was a huge moment,” says John Gilhooly, chief executive and artistic director of London’s Wigmore Hall. He is referring to the venue’s first live streamed concert during the pandemic, a performance by pianist Stephen Hough last June, which reached an audience of 800,000 across digital platforms and BBC Radio 3. The intimate hall, famed for its acoustic as well as its Art and Crafts interior, has a musical reputation in inverse proportion to its size — just 552 seats.
“It was also very important for the industry,” Gilhooly continues. “We were breaking the silence, giving people a bit of light when there had been so much isolation, and they responded in huge numbers. Some of the responses during the first lockdown were very moving.”
Wigmore Hall was the first leading UK music organisation out of the blocks to deliver streaming concerts. Soon it was offering an almost daily programme, the fullest schedule of any international concert hall, featuring artists such as Imogen Cooper (piano), Lucy Crowe (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), Angela Hewitt (piano), Paul Lewis (piano) and Mitsuko Uchida (piano).
If anybody thought chamber music was a dying art form, this venture will have silenced them. A new, young audience has appeared, joining Wigmore Hall’s live concerts from around the world and proving very active in online chat on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Periscope. That may be a challenge if there is nobody on the staff fluent in Russian or other less familiar languages to act as moderators, but as an investment in the audience of the future the engagement, it is unquestionably worth it.
The success of the streaming programme has confirmed Wigmore Hall as the market leader in its field. Yet, while it is true that a recital hall offering solo performers or chamber ensembles has had life easier than a concert hall or opera house, where the complexity of putting on performances is much greater, the Wigmore has still not escaped the day-to-day vicissitudes of the pandemic.
“This has not been an easy time for us, as some people may have suggested,” says Gilhooly. “We have had to make 25 per cent of the staff redundant, while redeploying as many as we could on the streaming of concerts. It has been exceptionally difficult for the hall, but I have to emphasise that we want all opera houses and orchestras to come back, because there is an ecosystem that we all need to survive.”
Since the start of the streaming programme in June, online donations have brought in £750,000. The ambition is to hit £1m by the one-year anniversary this summer. That is impressive for an organisation that has not introduced formal charging and relies on small donations from individuals.
The figures, though, have to be seen in context. In normal times, annual turnover would be £7m, comprising £4.5m in ticket sales and £2.5m in grants and sponsorship. In addition, it costs money to stream concerts, estimated at £3,000 per event, plus artists’ fees.
“That means not a large proportion of our income is being brought in by streaming,” says Gilhooly. “All that we have received has been ploughed back into paying the artists their full fee and investing in programming. This has made it possible for us to maintain the scale and ambition of what we are offering. When the pandemic is over, we will probably keep streaming live concerts once or twice a week, but apart from the deluded, nobody can say streaming concerts pays. You have staff costs, plus score reading, camera supervision, music copyright, performance copyright. And, if you put up a paywall, the numbers in the audience plummet.”
The intangible benefits are probably worth more. Membership of Wigmore Hall, costing between £50 and £2,500 according to the level of advantages, is up by at least 25 per cent, good for audience loyalty as well as the bank balance.
More intriguingly, a Morton Feldman day, focusing on the infrequently performed music of the maverick American composer, was watched by seven or eight times the number of people online that it would have drawn in the hall. A niche concert like that can reach a keen and sizeable audience internationally, and that could have an impact on the viability of adventurous programming going forwards.
For now, the priority is to get audiences back into the hall. “DCMS [the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport] has told us we should prepare for social distancing going forwards,” says Gilhooly. “During the hiatus between the lockdowns from September to December, about two-thirds of regulars of all ages were back with us, but we don’t know how far confidence will return. We have heard nothing yet about government financial support from here on. All activities that involve live audiences, both arts and sport, will need support in the medium term, and that isn’t just to give help to us. Restaurants and taxi drivers depend on the nightlife of a city, which is the same all over the country, and we need that nightlife to recover.”
On the day of we spoke, Gilhooly had been responding to another pressing issue, when the spat broke out over the lack of a visa agreement for musicians with the EU. The UK government said its “ambitious” plans for visa-free touring had been rejected by the EU. The EU countered that it was the UK government that had “refused” a plan.
“The industry needs to be careful,” says Gilhooly. “Some civil servants and politicians are very much onside and we must not alienate them. Rather than fighting over claims and counterclaims, we should set about winning the visa battle calmly and diplomatically. There are plenty of people in the EU who want our artists, not only classical musicians, but also rock and pop. The Association of British Orchestras has made a measured response, which is good. It is easy to get emotional when so many livelihoods are at stake, but this will be a long journey, so let’s not fall at the first hurdle.”
For the time being, Wigmore Hall has had to pause its live streaming while the latest lockdown plays out, but there is plenty more to come. The line-up for April to July promises (subject to pandemic restrictions) pianist Igor Levit, soprano Diana Damrau, harpsichordist and organist Mahan Esfahani, pianist Mitsuko Uchida and the multi-ethnic orchestra Chineke!
“We keep a high quality threshold,” says Gilhooly proudly. “It will be a challenge to get people back into the habit of going to concerts, but online has given us an advantage both nationally and internationally. Wigmore Hall has not had this level of recognition before. We never say that we are the leading venue for chamber music in the world, but if somebody else says it about us, we will gladly quote it.”