'Glimmer of hope': leading performers return to London's Wigmore Hall

Musicians including Mark Padmore, Mitsuko Uchida, Angela Hewitt and Stephen Hough feature in ‘empty hall’ concert series to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in June

The BBC and the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday announced a concert series that will see leading musicians return to the London stage for the first time since the lockdown. It marks the first live music broadcast on Radio 3 since 16 March. Twenty hour-long concerts featuring soloists or duos will take place at 1pm each weekday throughout June and will be livestreamed on the venue’s website and broadcast on Radio 3 and BBC Sounds, part of the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine initiative. All concerts will then be available on demand for 30 days.

The musicians will perform to an empty hall, with a minimal technical set-up. The Wigmore Hall has a well established livestream programme and an existing partnership with Radio 3, which broadcasts the venue’s Monday lunchtime concerts.

“When we shut the hall on 16 March we made sure to leave the piano on the stage, and the camera and audio equipment – all of which can be operated remotely – in place,” said the venue’s artistic director, John Gilhooly. “With only one or two performers on stage it’s very possible to make this work within government guidelines observing social distancing. There’ll be one producer backstage for Wigmore Hall, one producer for Radio 3, we need someone to tune and then anti-viral the piano, the artists will come on stage from separate entrances, the presenter will sit in the middle of the hall, I will sit in the balcony and we’ll communicate via radio, email and texts.”

Extra constraints have come into play in terms of the choice of musicians. All the performers live in or near London, and most have pledged to travel to the venue either on foot or by bicycle, says Gilhooly. “We are lucky that the level of international musicians living in central London is phenomenal.” He said the move represented a “glimmer of hope”.

Performers include singers Iestyn Davies and Roderick Williams, as well as pianists Benjamin Grosvenor, Angela Hewitt and Paul Lewis. Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida end the series with Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise.

pianist Stephen Hough
‘There is no substitute for hearing music live’ ... pianist Stephen Hough. Photograph: Jiyang Chen

Pianist Stephen Hough begins it on 1 June with the Bach-Busoni Chaconne and the Schumann Fantasie. “I am honoured and delighted,” he said, “although I am slightly anxious about how it will feel to leave the house and ‘go to work’ again. It seems an age since I stood in the wings, preparing to walk towards a piano.”

“Live music is in the DNA of Radio 3. Its loss is felt by all, not just at home but also in the music industry. It is a great joy to restore this service to the nation while also ensuring maximum health and safety,” said Alan Davey, controller of BBC Radio 3 and classical music.

Just as Myra Hess’s concerts at the National Gallery played such an important part in boosting morale during the second world war, Davey hopes the concerts will help those craving the sense of human connection between artist and audience and the excitement that live performance brings in a time when theatres, galleries, cinemas and concert halls have again been forced to close.

He would like to be able to expand the initiative to other venues across the UK later in the year. “It’s early days, but discussions are ongoing,” he said. “We don’t know where we’ll be or what activity will be allowed but the classical industry is creative and resourceful. We all have to find ways of reaching our audience and of continuing to make a living. It’s important to keep things going.”

The BBC’s involvement in the June series allows the expenditure to be shared, and, said Gilhooly, an anonymous donor has underwritten the Wigmore Hall’s costs. But going forward, how to fund broadcastable quality live music-making without ticket sales is something there is no easy answer to, and the culture industry faces enormous challenges.

“There’s huge anxiety,” said Gilhooly. “Eventually organisations will run out of cash. Some are already in serious trouble. There is no money in circulation at the moment. It’s going to be very tough getting our balance sheets right again. Major investors have been hit badly. I don’t think there will be as much sponsorship circulating in the months and years to come.

“The Wigmore Hall is OK for now, but if this goes on past Christmas, I don’t know. No one has any idea of how the rules and regulations are going to change, but none of us are going to come back from this 100% of what we were. This is uncharted territory.

“One thing I do know is that it is unworkable to open venues to only small audiences. The Wigmore Hall will haemorrhage if we have 20% houses, plus how do you socially distance people in areas such as the foyer, the bars, or on the way to the toilets?”

Gilhooly laments the lack of official clarity. “I wish at the outset the government had been clearer – it would be much better for them to have said, ‘You must close until New Year’s Eve,’ and then we could have planned accordingly.”

Whether at Glastonbury, in a theatre, or at a football match, there’s a magic around live performance, he added, that is also so important for mental health and wellbeing. “This is the first positive thing for the industry for many months. It’s a glimmer of hope,” he said.

“There is no substitute for hearing music live, even if the auditorium on this occasion will be empty, with only BBC microphones as audience,” said Hough. “This may only be a poking of a head above the parapet for now, but it’s a clear sign that we’re back.”


Imogen Tilden

The GuardianTramp

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