Britten through the eyes of…John Gilhooly


John Gilhooly (c) Ben Ealovega

John Gilhooly is Director of the Wigmore Hall, a position he has held since 2005. In this detailed interview we spoke about the hall’s history, its role in Britten’s life and the festival held to celebrate the composer’s 99th birthday. We also talked about plans for the hall’s in-house record label, and Gilhooly’s own approaches to planning and programming, and in the course of the interview he gave some fascinating insights into life behind the scenes at the hall.

Can you remember your first encounter with Britten’s music?

I think it was a chamber music series in the adjacent school when I was a student in Limerick. I went to a Catholic school but the adjacent school was a Church of Ireland Anglican school, and the headmaster there ran a wonderful chamber music series. I can remember my mother giving me the money to go and hear string quartets, and I’m sure I heard Britten’s Third Quartet as my first. I can’t remember who played it, but it may well have been the Endellions. I had a very early recording of them playing Britten on EMI, on LP, and that’s still at home in Ireland. I think that’s the last time a Britten focus was done before the Belcea recorded theirs.

It was part of John Ruddock’s chamber music series, which did so much for me. I remember it being a very quiet house, which is still a problem in Ireland. They’re doing Music in Great Irish Houses next month, and I’m told that Britten is still a problem there, which is a great pity!

Do you think Britten travels well?

I’m very impressed with what is happening internationally this year. In the past, with the shackles of the empire, there might have been a bit of resentment of that – I don’t think it’s just about the music, because that all moves on. British music in general gets a better hearing, and the Irish thing is very specific, in a concert ten years ago I think that would have been a big thing, that you don’t promote this particular music. Hopefully that is now changing.

Are you aware of when Britten’s first encounter with the Wigmore Hall might have been?

Yes, his diary mentions coming to the hall for a concert on 19 March 1931. That links up with our diary, where we could confirm that the performer was the violinist Antonio Brosa. The first performance of his music in the Hall was 30 November 1934, the world premiere of Holiday Diary. The rest of the works are on a list that I insisted went into the program for the 99th birthday series. We’ve not been written out of the story, but I wanted to make a statement very clearly.

Before Britten set up Aldeburgh this was where his chamber music was performed. People don’t remember that, and it is rather glossed over, because as you can see there are 25 British or World premieres, so it’s not at all insignificant. I think we made the statement and got some very good reviews and focus on it from people like Hugh Canning in the Sunday Times.

It was a hard sell to audiences but it was almost at capacity. Putting on all the song cycles in the space of 48 hours was quite risky, but it worked – it got the audiences in. Because those singers were so committed, and really wanted to do it, they were prepared to put the work in. We had Gerald Finley lined up for years, we had Alice Coote lined up for Phaedra for years, Elizabeth Watts for On This Island , and Robin Tritschler does Winter Words so well!

I also wanted a French speaker for Les illuminations. I’ve heard it done by British sopranos who are marvellous, but there is a difference. Having a native sing in their own language is completely different, so it was worthwhile having Sandrine Piau do that, and Martyn Brabbins worked very well with her. We had a wonderful Serenade, too, and of course that was premiered here, so that had to be a showstopper.

What was the planning behind the festival?

We started off on Britten’s birthday with the feast of St Cecilia, and then waited until the death day in December, because I wanted to lead up to the Third Quartet. It isn’t quite an obsession but the Third Quartet has always been in my mind, probably because I was introduced to it so young; and I love Venice, and all the things that influenced him. In that last movement, with the cello at the end, it’s almost like his heart slowing down, like a pulse, like a soul going off. It has echoes of Death In Venice, and of his own impending death, because he was very ill.

Do you think the list in the program serves as a reminder to the Wigmore Hall’s long standing commitment to contemporary music?

Yes, and I made the point in a two page spread in the new brochure. It’s lazy journalism, and people will still walk up to me and say, “You’re not doing enough commissioning”, and I say that we’ve got 30 commissions next year. Find me a hall, anywhere, that’s paying for 30 works! At this stage it’s really irritating, and it’s almost like people don’t want to acknowledge it.

The hall has never closed its doors to contemporary music – it could probably have done a little bit more, but that reputation of being somewhat dusty is wrong. If you think of it, Busoni was the first person to step on stage here, Poulenc was here, and so many other composer-performers have played here. Now the message is getting out there. It’s very hard to change a perception when the mind won’t see what’s in front of it.

The change for Early Music is also incredible. It’s about offering music from the Tudor times right up until yesterday, or today even. That’s the way I see it, that has to be the breadth of programming.

Does that also reflect the versatility of the acoustic?

Well it’s a tiny stage, and I remember once being asked what you can actually do with the Wigmore Hall, it’s a shoebox with a tiny stage. My response was that it is about big ideas in that small space. The space is empty, so it’s what you make of it! There are all sorts of things that we’ve been able to do, and revisit some old things as well.

What was the audience feedback for the 99th birthday festival?

Well this was quite bold, and there were a lot of people who came to everything, maybe a hundred or so. Overall several thousand people dipped in and out, and then there will be a radio audience of about 250,000, so that’s what makes it worthwhile. There was no negative feedback whatsoever, and people loved it; people who went on the whole journey absolutely adored it.

Some people who had only gone to the chamber music dipped into the song, and vice versa, so that was good, because some people only like string quartets and if you gave them a thousand pounds they would not go to a song recital, which is very blinkered, and the other way around too. The fact that most of the songs are in English helps, and also that the poetry is so well loved and a lot of it well known. You don’t have that language barrier you have with the German Lied, and then you have his progression as a composer, and how he dips in and out.

Are there events in the Centenary year you are particularly anticipating?

What I’m really looking forward to seeing is Gloriana. I still don’t understand why that failed as a Coronation piece. They say it was filled out with civil servants who knew nothing about the piece, and they were all gloved, so when they all applauded it was muffled! Maybe it’s not a celebratory piece, as you’ve got a different Irish question going through that work of course, a different historical question.

It will be interesting to see what Susan Bullock makes of it. Phyllida Lloyd’s production for Opera North was marvellous, I saw that twice. I actually think it’s one of my favourite operas. I love all of Britten’s operas, but there’s something about Gloriana. It is political, but whether or not Britten was fully committed when he wrote it, I don’t know. There is something distant, something removed – you feel his presence right through the other operas, but there is something slightly distant about this, as if he was 80% committed. I can’t put my finger on it, and maybe that was picked up on. Maybe they found it a bit insulting, some of it, as a celebration of the new Queen Elizabeth!

In addition, do you think his work benefits from repeated listening?

Yes. The song cycles grow on you the more you hear them. I feel the weakest song cycle, and one that is rarely done, is Tit For Tat. That is not a masterpiece by any means, although it was very well done here by Marcus Farnsworth. I adore the Canticles, and especially Canticle II. That was an exceptional evening in the festival, and we were very lucky to have Mark Padmore and Iestyn Davies, and wonderful musicians – Julius Drake, Lucy Wakeford and Richard Watkins – so we had a very strong line-up, with Marcus as the third voice. That is coming out on Wigmore Hall Live, and will come out on the centenary day, so that is our contribution.

I also don’t think I understood Britten properly until I had spent some time in Aldeburgh, because particularly with the operas and some of the chamber music, when you see the landscape, and get a feel of the air, and walk on the beach, when you walk around Snape and the marshes, there is something about the music and the place that is very connected. I always make a point of visiting his grave, I don’t know why – I’m drawn to the church and I’m drawn to his grave.

What does Britten mean to you?

He’s a very important figure, for me personally and for the hall. In 1964 when the hall was under threat he and Pears stood up hugely for the hall. There was talk of closing it or making it in to something else; and William Lyne was the director at the time. He enlisted their support, and they were marvellous. We don’t have a copy of the correspondence but it was signed jointly. William can almost recite it word for word! There is a photograph of Pears in the green room. We change the photographs in there and try to move them around a bit, to be democratic, but William asked for that never to be moved, because of what they did. So we have never touched that one, and there is a wonderful image of Britten down in the Bechstein Room too. They are important for us.

Do you have any particularly special memories of Britten concerts given at the hall?

We did the three string quartets in 2001, with the Belcea Quartet, and we had Thomas Adès in the concert, with Ian Bostridge. At the time Adès was the artistic director at Aldeburgh, so having him there with Ian, who sounds very Brittenesque – a successor to Pears regardless of what anybody thinks – and the Belceas, who had invested so much time in Britten. Siegmund Nissel, the second violinist of the Amadeus Quartet, gave a talk, so we had that connection going back to Britten. That will linger on in the memory.

Is there a secret to planning an all-Britten concert, and some pitfalls that should be avoided?

I’ve learned by making a few mistakes, and by hearing the works over and over again. I was very specific about how to place the song cycles, who the singers should be, and where you put folksongs and not, that sort of thing. The years of getting to know the music gave me a natural sense for how to do that, but I can’t tell you what the formula is, these things just come together! It seemed to work.

Doing a concert with Andrew Carwood and the Cardinall’s Musick, that was a hard sell but a very interesting evening. The only thing I regret was because it was close to Christmas, we did it on the 8th or soon after, we couldn’t get the boys from Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s, where he is director of music, to do A Ceremony of Carols. I would have liked to have had the procession; I think that would have filled the house. So you might have an artistic arc to something, but you don’t always get your way because of availability or budgets. I’m afraid the art should come first but sometimes you have to compromise!

You start with a blank canvas and you write down everything you want to do, and very often you get 80 or 90% of that. For a season I overlook because things fall out, it’s like the airlines! Then you end up with a very comprehensive season, but sometimes you have to compromise. I think we started planning this in 2008 or 2009. To get the quality of artists that we got was wonderful.

We are lucky with the accompanists, too – there are some very good young accompanists coming up, as there are string quartets, and you wouldn’t have said that a few years ago. It’s good now that we can pick and choose, and create platforms for all of them. Our in house pianos are our orchestras as far as I’m concerned! We have two of them, and they’re the busiest pianos in the country, the most maintained – there is someone tuning them every two or three hours. What the orchestras are to a concert hall, our pianos are to us.

What is your personal favourite in Britten’s output and why?

I think the quartets and the song cycles, the Third Quartet as we said earlier. I adore Winter Words, and I think On This Island is an amazing work. It depends; my favourite thing is usually the last thing I heard! The only weak bit of programming was Tit for Tat, but everything else is of such quality.

People were coming up to me at the festival and saying what a genius he was, and that these songs are equally important as anything Schubert or Schumann wrote. That was very gratifying to hear that, because it was a risk. We got a little bit of help from the Britten-Pears Foundation, and help from individual donors, and without them I don’t think we would have been able to do it. It cost £150,000 to make that festival, but between ticket sales and sponsorship it broke even, which was satisfying, as it was certainly one of the bigger risks of the year.

Doing Britten has made me think what to do next – he was so influenced by Purcell, so I’m going to do a big Purcell series. One of the big things he did here was a Purcell festival, and the Second String Quartet is very influenced by him.

I felt Tippett was important too, because he’s neglected, so that is also something worth doing. The Heath Quartet will be recording all the quartets for Wigmore Hall Live, which is good for them and good for the hall, and we’ll have Mark Padmore, Craig Ogden and Steven Osborne, who is playing so well at the moment.

Britten says so much so efficiently in the songs, though. If you think about it, who has produced an output like that in song? I can’t think of anybody!

Are there any of his pieces you find more difficult to listen to?

No. For a while, I don’t know why, I didn’t like The Turn of the Screw for a while, but I soon got out of that! It’s such a part of what is around me all the time, and part of my own collection at home. If I get tired of listening to Schubert I will listen to Britten. Malcolm Martineau recorded all the songs with young singers, so I’ve been listening to that a lot recently; it’s great to get those fresh interpretations.

Other than Britten, what music might you listen to in the Wigmore Hall out of choice?

Again it’s what I last heard, but this week has been exceptional and I’ve gone to nearly every concert. We had Adam Walker and James Baillieu playing music for flute and piano, then the Hagen Quartet playing Beethoven, and we had Stile Antico on the Feast of Corpus Christi, with masses and works around that, which was marvellous. Then Friday night we had Christophe Rousset, then Milos playing guitar, and then jazz music in the bar, and then on Saturday we had Eisler’s Hollywood Songbook, which for me was one of the best things Christopher Maltman and Julius Drake have ever done! Then on the Sunday we had Richard Goode playing the last three Beethoven sonatas.

So it’s been a good week, and there was so much for different audiences. I just wish people were more open minded, that they would dip in to the choral music, the sacred music, and a harpsichord recital, that people who are obsessed with one or two particular pieces would open their ears to Richard Goode. There wasn’t enough sacred music, early music or polyphony, so it has been good to do that, without making the place into a church! Certainly that was lacking, and it complements the song series beautifully.

We’re doing 70 song recitals a year, where other countries and cities are reducing – Berlin and Vienna are reducing, in New York for instance I think they’re only doing about ten a year now in Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center, so that’s a problem.

For great singers it’s a huge investment, they have no props, director, make-up or colleagues – a great pianist hopefully – and they have to entertain and sustain us for two hours. That’s a tall order, so that’s why I’m careful with young singers, to get the timing right for a full evening.

A lot of these singers wouldn’t want to carry a whole evening of Britten on their own, so about 20 minutes is about right. It’s interesting to observe people ‘dropping in’ to an evening, but I think that raises the bar even higher, and they owned the platform and the work for the whole section.

I say to some singers that they are not ready for Winterreise, and they think that’s an insult, but it’s because you have to have lived a little before you can do these works, and the voice doesn’t fully settle until the mid-30s for some of them. It’s like the digital thing. They expect instant fame, and just because everything around us is so instant, it doesn’t mean a career has to be that way!

The Wigmore Hall resources devoted to the Britten centenary can be found here, while a list of the Britten works to receive their premieres at the hall is here. There are two reviews from the Britten 99th birthday festival by the author of this blog, a song recital from Mark Padmore, Christine Rice and Malcolm Martineau and the string quartets from the Takács Quartet

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