Classical music - Wigmore Hall in London has just reopened after a £3m facelift. But was it necessar
In my lifetime - and I'm not yet of pensionable age - extraordinarily large sums of money have been spent on refurbishing a boutique concert hall that has a mere 550 seats and occu- pies an upmarket address in London's West End. Some speak of it as a holy grail, but why is Wigmore Hall so important that, at the cost of £3m, a third refurbishment has just been unveiled?
It started life in 1901 as Bechstein Hall, a place where the German company's pianos could be tried and tested, and a venue for chamber concerts. It was designed by the English architect Thomas Collcutt, who used alabaster and marble on the walls, flooring and stairway. Encouraged by the uniquely beautiful acoustic achieved partly by careful design and partly by accident (acoustics remain notoriously fluke-prone), illustrious names walked the boards: for example, Artur Schnabel, Pablo de Sarasate, Arthur Rubinstein and Myra Hess. Even Sir Thomas Beecham could be found singing in a madrigal group. But the First World War created an inhospitable climate for German firms and, in 1916, the entire enterprise - including studios, offices, warehouses, the hall itself and 137 pianos - was sold to the department store Debenhams.
In a second incarnation in 1917, the hall was renamed after the street in which it stands. During the inter-war period, Wigmore Hall flourished and attracted the greatest names. But after the Second World War, its fortunes nosedived: the newly formed Arts Council took on the running of the hall as a salvage operation. It was a hall for hire. There was no artistic policy. It served mainly as a platform for debutantes, was frequently empty and had a distinctly down-at-heel feel.
Things finally began to change after the appointment of the Australian William Lyne as director in 1966. A concert to celebrate the hall's 75th anni- versary with Rubinstein and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf whetted appetites to return the hall to its former glory. It was de-shackled from the Arts Council, and Lyne had the idea of themed concerts and series. The Wigmore became what it is today - a space recognised internationally as synonymous with the performance of chamber music and song at its very greatest. But not with the latest "mod cons".
So what does £3m buy? The old cinema seats that had been in situ for some time have been replaced by plush new ones in larger and smaller sizes - this is for sight lines rather than comfort - at no cost to the acoustic (we are told). An air-cooling system will allow programming to extend into those hot summer months promised by global warming. New lighting will banish shadow on the stage and allow for more dramatic illumination, while the hall's original light fittings, strangely finicky for the period, have been reinstalled. The paintwork has been spruced up, and the celebrated arts and crafts mural The Soul of Music is now lit from below. The basement area - bar, restaurant, loos (more for women) and Bechstein Room (the current educational space) - have all been rejigged to some extent. And then there's the de rigueur new carpet.
But why refurbish halls for elite performers to perform to elite audiences? One answer must come from the artists: "It's one of the two or three greatest chamber music halls in the world for its acoustic, ambience, its warmth of sound, the relationship you feel with the audience. It's a very special hall." So says the cellist Ralph Kirshbaum. And according to Roger Vignoles, the pianist who has accompanied so many greats in the hall: "For singers, it has a very flattering acoustic. That's why they love being there. It makes them feel wonderful."
And well-heeled friends and patrons like being there, too. It is an astonishing achievement of Lyne's that he built up a highly knowledgeable and faithful audience for lieder recitals. Before his regime, "lieder" was box-office death. Lyne could promote 60 song recitals of international quality, whereas in other (musical) cities around the world, six might be the more likely norm.
So why is there disquiet in some quarters of the music profession - and possibly among the punters - over the Wigmore's make-over? Coinciding with the refurbishment, a couple of new brooms have been brought in to run the hall. The reign of Lyne is over, and what may have become a cosy set of relationships around a coterie of artists is believed to be threatened. Paul Kildea, the artistic director taken on last year, may share Lyne's nationality, but it can be no surprise that he wants to stamp his own authority and vision on his inheritance. Following his appointment, and that of John Gilhooly as executive director, whiffs of change are in the air.
No bad thing, perhaps, as some believe that "lieder snobbery" had crept in, giving a young artist with a foreign name a greater chance of a date than an equally gifted Brit. And yet, a glance at the new season's programme reveals little obvious change. The Sunday Morning Coffee Concerts remain, as do BBC Radio 3's Lunchtime Concerts and the main chamber music and lieder recitals. Titles have been changed - for example, the "Master Series" is now the "Wigmore Series", which is surely a progressive move.
But eyebrows have been raised over two aspects of the new regime: Kildea's conducting career and the inclusion of jazz in the hall's promotions. Kildea explains that the trustees - headed by John Tusa, managing director of the Barbican - wished to appoint a performing artist to suc- ceed Lyne. But appearing in the opening concert and conducting three times in the first season seems a bit much to some. And then there's the jazz. Although only four concerts are planned for the entire season, there are fears that these may be the thin end of a wedge. Will the hall go the way of the mishmashed South Bank?
Frankly, it is hard to imagine how a mere four concerts could upset anyone. Some jazz artists benefit hugely from the acoustic of a great performing space, without the need for smoke and drink. And pianists require good instruments - think of Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock. The pianist Brad Mehldau, performing on 17 November, is hailed as coming from a similar stable and has the backing of Radio 3's London Jazz Festival.
It seems very unlikely that Wigmore Hall will become some distant cousin of Ronnie Scott's. But the wider scope is an interesting development. The refurbished environment will serve the traditionalists well. If the loudest complaints come from those who can't get in, Wigmore Hall will remain the jewel that it is.
Annette Morreau was founding director of the Arts Council's Contemporary Music Network