The Story of a Concert Hall

Download the The Story of a Concert Hall (pdf document), written by Julia MacRae and produced by Paula Best.

Beginnings as Bechstein Hall

Wigmore Hall was built in 1901 by the German piano firm Bechstein next to its showrooms on Wigmore Street. The Hall was intended to be both grandly impressive but intimate enough for recitals.

Originally called Bechstein Hall , it opened with two gala concerts on 31 May and 1 June 1901, featuring the Italian pianist Ferrucio Busoni, the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, the Ukrainian pianist Vladimir de Pachmann and several others.

The Hall was designed by the English architect Thomas Colcutt, FRIBA, (1840-1924) in Renaissance style, using alabaster and marble walls, flooring and stairway. Colcutt was one of the most distinguished architects of his day and his work embraced many worlds, including the design of the public rooms in more than a dozen P&O liners.

German Hostility

The outbreak of war in 1914 brought hostility to German firms in London. Even Nellie Melba was criticised for singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ accompanied on a Bechstein.

In 1916, the entire business - including studios, offices, warehouses, 137 pianos and the Hall itself - was sold to Debenhams for £56,500. The Hall alone had cost £100,000 to build.

Past and Present Performers

In its early years Wigmore Hall featured many remarkable performers. Arthur Schnabel, at the age of 22, played a recital so successful that a second was hastily arranged; composers Percy Grainger and Saint-Saëns appeared; Melba and Caruso sang; 27-year-old Thomas Beecham gave his first concert; Artur Rubinstein played, and at his farewell recital at the Hall many years later urged his audience to "keep coming back to this wonderful Hall."

Prokofiev, Poulenc and Hindemith appeared, Britten and Pears gave recitals, and many of Britten's most significant chamber and vocal works were given their first performances at the Hall; Schwarzkopf sang, Jacqueline du Pré played the cello; the Amadeus Quartet gave many memorable concerts.

With its celebrated acoustic, continuity of staff and famously knowledgeable audience, the Hall continues to attract the world’s leading musicians, who appreciate the degree of intimacy built up between artist and audience which contributes so much to Wigmore Hall's very special atmosphere.

Artists appearing in recent times have included András Schiff, Dame Felicity Lott, Cecilia Bartoli, Sir Thomas Allen, Steven Isserlis, Ann Murray DBE, Matthias Goerne, Joshua Bell, Andreas Scholl, Angelika Kirchschlager, Thomas Quasthoff, Simon Keenlyside, Florestan Trio, Bernarda Fink, The Borodin Quartet, The Nash Ensemble, Ian Bostridge, Gerald Finley, The Emerson Quartet, The Academy of Ancient Music, a quartet of leading accompanists - Graham Johnson, Julius Drake, Malcolm Martineau, Roger Vignoles - and a host of others too numerous to mention.

Wigmore Hall also showcases a new generation of young artists, many of whom made their first London recital appearance on its platform. These include Alice Coote, Paul Lewis, Kate Royal, Alison Balsom, Christopher Maltman, Joyce DiDonato, Mark Padmore, Belcea Quartet, Alina Ibragimova, Elias String Quartet and Iestyn Davies.

William Lyne and the Introduction of Themed Seasons

William Lyne became the Hall's Director in 1966 and is credited with building Wigmore Hall's reputation as one of the world’s leading recital halls. He was the first to introduce themed seasons, with the Faure Series in 1979/80; subsequent series have been devoted to Schumann, Purcell, Bach, Ligeti, Haydn, Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, and others.

William Lyne retired, after a remarkable 37 year tenure, in 2003.

John Gilhooly – The Present and Future of Wigmore Hall

John Gilhooly joined Wigmore Hall as Executive Director in December 2000 and was appointed overall Director in 2005. His tenure has seen the complete transformation of the Hall’s financial and administrative affairs.

In 2004, he led the successful £4 million Capital Appeal and the £3m refurbishment project, which was widely praised for being completed on time and on budget. He has overseen the purchase of a long-term lease for the Hall, completed in 2008 for £3.1m, which not only secured the future but also allowed money previously required for rent to be used for further development of the artistic programme.

Whilst maintaining and expanding the Hall's core repertoire of classical song, chamber and early music, John Gilhooly has introduced many vibrant new initiatives, attracting a wide and diverse audience. New directions include appointing the influential jazz musician Brad Mehldau to curate an ongoing jazz series, presenting distinguished artists from the world music scene, and beginning a programme of late night concerts, the first of which featured the tango-inspired music of the South American composer Piazzolla, which attracted a capacity crowd of enthusiastic young listeners.

The appointment of Luke Bedford as the Hall's first Composer-in-Residence is another new initiative, in the Hall's great tradition of commissioning and supporting new works.

It is Wigmore Hall's stated intention to be a place of musical excitement and innovation as well as tradition, and John Gilhooly's imaginative, challenging programming is attracting record-breaking ticket sales and capacity houses.

Wigmore Hall Live

In October 2005, Mr Gilhooly launched the Hall’s  own CD label Wigmore Hall Live, to help bring the Hall’s musical programme to a wider international audience. Wigmore Hall Live’s growing catalogue from recent and archive recitals have garnered critical praise.

With a peerless acoustic and a distinguished roster of artists, Wigmore Hall Live will continue to be a cherished catalogue and archive of wonderful concerts at the highest level.

The Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition

For ten years the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition has attracted applications of international standard from all over the world. We are proud to be reinstating this prestigious competition, highlighting our position as a leading song recital venue , our commitment to this art form and to the fostering of emerging singers and pianists dedicated to the performance of song.

We are grateful to the Kohn Foundation for its crucial financial support of the competition in 2007, 2009 and 2011.

Wigmore Hall Podcasts

You can find out more by listening to our podcasts hosted by Sandy Burnett:

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