An interview with John Gilhooly, recipient of the Heidelberger Frühling Music Award 2019
All human communities need places that bring people together instead of leaving them to their collective solitude. When he took up office in 2005, John Gilhooly, director of London’s famous Wigmore Hall, was 35 and the youngest helmsman ever to take charge of such a famous, professional and outsize music-tanker. What he has achieved since then is itself something of an artwork, one that welds a vast array of separate events into an organic whole. 500 concerts a year, infused by the most exacting standards of professionalism, designed for different audiences and yet subtly and variously bound up with one another to create a living fabric. It seems hardly conceivable for a London music-lover to say: I couldn’t find anything there that appeals to me. Gilhooly’s approach is multi-polar. His concert hall is a home offering inspiration, tranquillity and protection to all comers. It is this that has earned him the Heidelberger Frühling Music Award for 2019. As an expert on the art-song he is also on the jury for the competition DAS LIED, the public song contest scheduled for February 2019 in Heidelberg.
Mr Gilhooly, what does the ideal audience look like? Every performance has one of its own.
How can we categorise these different audiences? It’s a genre thing. You have an audience for chamber music and you have an audience for song, for opera …
Doesn’t that mean putting up barriers instead of looking for an audience that wants it all? That’s rare. I’m wary of ideals. An ideal audience implies that other audiences are less than ideal. Let’s put it this way: an agile, music-hungry audience keen to hear whatever’s new would be desirable, whether we’re talking about Schubert or reggae. It would be an audience at one with itself, more interested in content than form.
Content? We’re all different and yet we’re all the same. We long for togetherness, exchange, intimacy, we’re at odds with things like loss, violence, injury. This is our intrinsic musicality. And when it is stimulated by the music we actually hear, the resulting experience can give us comfort, happiness and strength. This is what we want to happen at the “temple for chamber music” that the Wigmore Hall represents.
That sounds almost religious. (laughs) I was brought up a Catholic. For me, the word “temple” associates a spirit of openness. Everyone should feel welcome and at ease, safe and sound almost. I am convinced that my job is to create a space where people can meet and to invite the participants that fit in with that purpose.
A word on those participants. What criteria do your performers have to fulfil? When we say “participants” we always mean the performers and the audience. So there is only one criterion: the relationship has to work.
That means you have to know both sides very well. I’m an enthusiastic listener. When it’s not music, it’s people. In the case of performers, I need to know from the outset how enthusiastic they are.
So the best tip for someone who wants to perform at the Wigmore Hall is to make sure they have the right kind of twinkle in their eye? (laughs) Maybe. Enthusiasm is the best enabler of all. But that twinkle will only win me over if it goes with musical professionalism and supreme quality. Twinkling on its own won’t get you anywhere.
So intonation in the subdominant chord has to be perfect? Intonation is only one parameter. Does the performer feel at home with us? What’s behind the programme he or she has suggested? Only when I’m convinced that everything fits will a musician appear on the Wigmore platform.
Protection for the audience? And for the performer. Trust is a very fragile construct. It’s very hard to establish and very easy to ruin. On both sides.
Gilhooly puts people in compartments! But in so many lovingly furnished compartments that the differences are hardly discernible.
Which means that basically he has only one compartment: for the human animal as an individual being within the community, a being that needs room to expand.
That’s sounds like you’re reluctant to take risks. Quite the contrary! I love taking risks because they very often have a happy ending. Fear of failure normally debunks itself as soon as you start taking about it. The stakes are high. We want the best possible deal for all involved.
The Wigmore Hall offers over 500 concerts per year. One programme for every individual? Society is eclectic, colourful and varied. The programme of every cultural institution should be equally varied, colourful and eclectic. That’s what I believe.
A noble aim, but surely unachievable? The point is that ultimately the individual programmes for different audiences should not just be a random chocolate-box assortment. The first step is the perfect individual programme. But I would never stop there. You have to wade in knee-deep. What I’m after is a big design balanced and harmonious not only at the lowest level but also in the programming that transcends the programmes themselves. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.
What happens to you personally in concerts? (pause) At the last Wimbledon tennis tournament I had a very gripping experience. Watching the finalists, I made it clear to myself that for years they had been training their bodies for this one moment. They were at the peak of their physical condition and fully prepared mentally to coordinate their bodies to function at such unimaginable speed. The overwhelming enjoyment, enthusiasm and sheer magnitude of that moment communicated themselves to the audience, everyone there was profoundly moved and stirred. It was an intimate encounter between two people, and we were all privileged to be present. And exactly the same thing happens at a song recital. My aim is to achieve this ideal. When I start planning for it, I need to be self-effacing and humble. I have no right to make programmes just for myself. My duty is to enable things that are not necessary my cup of tea.
Do you ever go to concerts where you don’t like the programme? In fact, I find it intriguing. There are always those precious moments when my expectations and prejudices are disappointed because what I hear is so magnificent.
The way you describe your job, you sound like an agent for audiences and performers. (laughs) Ouch. That sounds awful. Can we do it again?
It was meant as a compliment. You appear to see yourself as a middle-man, an enabler with the sensitivity and responsibility to create a harmonious unity between audience and performers. Normally, an agent is not necessarily interested in benefiting both sides but rather in making his cut and then bolting. I don’t see myself as a salesman talking people into buying something they don’t want. I want to satisfy needs and open people’s ears …
That sounds all very fine, almost statesmanlike. But you’re not free of the obligation to sell… That’s true. But our sponsors have the same attitude as we do. It’s a question of investing in the audiences we have to sustain the trust that is already there. And of investing in new audiences to make trust come about in the first place. It’s essential to sell some tickets at very low prices. Money should never be a barrier preventing people from coming into contact with music.
So that there are lots of pilgrims to your temple of the small ensembles? So that everyone can hear the music they’ve been waiting for. And that doesn’t just mean satisfying needs. I take the people who come to us very seriously. I want to open their ears to new things, if they’re ready for it.
The temple of chamber music is changing London? Yes, as a location the Wigmore Hall is changing London. All my work involves is to ensure that performances and audiences have a space where they can find their way to one another. That’s how music comes about. And yes, that music is changing London.