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Returning to the concert hall

John Gilhooly

John Gilhooly, artistic director of Wigmore Hall, told David Hennessy that the performing arts needs ‘a glimmer of hope’ and also clarity from government and that he can’t see live concerts returning until 2021.

The Irish artistic director of London’s Wigmore Hall, John Gilhooly, is bringing live music back to the revered venue as well as BBC Radio for the first time since lockdown began.

The series of lunchtime concerts will include the famed Irish soprano Ailish Tynan among a host of esteemed names that include pianist Dame Mitsuko Uchida and singers Mark Padmore and Iestyn Davies.

Social distancing rules will be strictly adhered to throughout the programme with the musicians performing to an empty Wigmore Hall with minimal support from crew. All of the performers live in or near London and most will be travelling by foot or bicycle.

As well as being aired live on Radio 3 and BBC Sounds, the concerts will also be streamed live on the Wigmore Hall website. The two organisations usually partner for Wigmore Hall Lunchtime Concerts.

John Gilhooly, from Castleconnell in Limerick, told The Irish World: “I kind of designed it as a glimmer of hope for the industry because no one is speaking up for this industry. By the very nature of what we do, bringing hundreds of thousands of people together in auditoriums for concerts, we’re a different part of the economy.

“Watching Easter Sunday mass, I noticed there were two priests on the altar. There was an organist and a singer and they were all socially distanced so I watched that from home and thought, ‘If they can make that work in a church, I can make something work in a venue’.

“It means that the musicians who are involved get a chance to perform again, reconnect.

“They want to stay connected and there’s something about the live experience. Music and sport, these are the things that connect.

“Even if eventually some sport is played behind closed doors: If you can watch it on the telly, it’s live. You feel like you’re there.

“We’re all listening to archive recordings but there’s something about being in the moment something is happening, you know it’s real so hopefully we do it again in September. It really has gone down as a glimmer of hope for the industry but also it’s thrown up all the complexities and complications for the performing arts, for venues. I don’t just mean classical music, I mean music, theatre, dance, the West End.

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“We’ve been inundated with good will. I have never seen anything like the international coverage of this in all languages.

“There were notes coming in from the Far East, from the States so that’s wonderful. I think we’re going to have a huge viewership and huge listenership.

“It’s tough,we’re all working from home and it’s been quite a complex thing to deliver this project working from home to be quite honest but I felt I had to be positive. I went to BBC3 with the idea and they very generously agreed to come in as a partner and we’ve got an existing partnership with them anyway.

“It means anybody in the world can tune in and watch on the Wigmore Hall website and anybody in the UK can listen on BBC Radio 3 and that’s wonderful so hopefully we’ll have a few Irish as well. Ailish is there which is great amongst the line-up.”

Although he is providing a glimmer of hope, John is under no illusions that the industry is facing some tough challenges and even when things do return to normal, he expects live music to be the last thing to return.

“The creative arts here is worth I think £8.5 billion. 8.5 billion is not to be sneezed at so we’re part of the overall economy.


“It could be that the rest of the economy is back in due course hopefully but there will be a lag between that and what we do and also if there’s no vaccine.

“If they find one of these repurposed medicines that keeps people out of ICU that might give people more confidence so it’s not a case of just when we can reopen as an auditorium, it’s about people having confidence to return.

“Ireland is being faced with the same problems. It’s the lag between when people will feel safe enough to come out. I’m getting letters from people in their 50s who are worried about coming back to a packed auditorium and there’s going to be international travel problems. Not every territory will be at the same stage of the pandemic.There may be different levels of quarantine. Nobody is going to want to leave their home, nobody is going to want to fly in from Germany if they have to quarantine here for two weeks before they can come onstage and do one concert. It’s just not worth it.”

John does not feel the directives from government have always been right or even clear, revealing they had to watch Boris Johnson’s speech enforcing a lockdown twice before they knew where it left them.

“In a way, we need special guidance for performing arts. We need a clear line from the government, ‘Stay closed at least until such and such a date be it New Year’s Eve or whatever’ because then you can actually come up with a plan but if it’s going to be, ‘You might be open next month, you might be open the month after’, that will be hard.

“Until there is a miracle or a vaccine, I’m cautiously optimistic that we can open before New Year’s Eve but I’m not convinced. The fact that the Chancellor has furloughed people until October tells me a lot. If it’s open in September, wonderful but I doubt it because most of Europe has already announced that they’re not.

“I would be critical. I’m critical that it took too long to lock us down and even when the advice was given we had to listen to the speech twice on 16 march to actually work out what the Prime Minister was saying to us. This is really difficult, this is unchartered territory for government, for venues, for the whole lot of us but clarity is so important. For us to have to listen to the speech twice to work out whether or not we’re going to stay open.

“The language was so oblique. We need that clarity and then of course I suppose the public will need an assurance and clarity to refill our auditoriums that things are safe again. It’s a non-starter if you say, ‘You can do concerts with 20% of the house’. We’ll haemorrhage money.

Mitsuko Uchida

“We were ready to close because Europe was closing. Ireland closed much faster than here. I think having a medical doctor as Taoiseach is not a bad thing actually but we were ready to close ten days before we did. We wanted to close ten days before we did because we could see what was happening in Italy and Berlin and Vienna, people I speak to everyday.

“I’m not looking for special treatment (for the industry). I’m just saying tread a little bit carefully becuase it’s going to be the last thing to recover. The last things to open at full capacity will be the concert halls, the theatres, the sports venues and possibly the churches. I think we’re in for a long closure with churches as well.

“There should be a measure of honesty like, ‘This is a 5 month plan’, ‘This is a 6 month plan’. Until this happened, we were planning three years ahead. I’m always thinking two or three years ahead. I’ve stopped planning because there is going to be such a backlog of commitments that I’ve alreayd made that I haven’t fulfilled in the last six or eight weeks and then there’s going to be the rest of the season. Seasons ahead are going to have to be postponed, I think.

“Things i planned for 2021 or 2022 will now have to go into 2023 because I’ll have to bring in the stuff from 2020 that didn’t happen.”


John points out the dubious position the uncertain times leaves performers in.

“Musicians are sitting around unpaid and there is genuine hardship. There are young musicians hardly making a living as it was, at the beginning of their career, beginning to build a profile, effectively locked at home now.

“If you share with musicians, you can make music but all the social distancing means people can’t even rehearse. Orchestras can’t rehearse at the moment. You can’t have 70 or 80 musicians getting together to rehearse. I don’t think that great musicians will lose their game because a great musician is always a great musician but apart from being a soloist playing in an ensemble at the moment, there’s no rehearsal opportunity. It’s like being an athlete. You need to be training.”

Many have remarked on the cruelty of the Covid-19 virus and how it stops families saying goodbye to loved ones. Music plays a part in Irish farewells and he believes we will have a backlog of grief to work through when it is all over.

“I’ve written five letters of sympathy to families I know who have had Covid deaths. Music used to be part of the whole bereavement process aswell, of course.

“Especially with Covid deaths, it’s almost straight to the grave or crematorium so there’s an awful backlog of mourning. There’s nothing like an Irish funeral. We say goodbye in a most dignified but celebratory way.

“There’s still a huge shock and there will be some getting over this psychologically.

“A very senior musician rang me yesteday and said the announcment was the best thing for the mental health of the national music industry because there is so much despair so we’ve got to make sure not to fall under that despair.

“There is huge isolation. I live in Camden. There is still an element of the Irish community here. I’m acutely aware that there is a lot of isolation among the elderly Irish in london. This must be a dreadful time for them, particularly those who have been widowed or who have always lived alone, it must be dreadful. Sally Mulready and all those people do wonderful work.

“We do an awfful lot of work with older people. We do work with people with dementia.

“We do a lot of digital and online work with women and abused families in refuge centres and the demand for that online work has gone up. We’ve got musicians doing one one one onlline with various families in that situation where there’s been domestic abuse.

“We used to go and do it in a care centre or whatever but now whatever we can do online, we’re doing.

“The National Concert Hall, The Gate Theatre, all that wonderful theatrical tradition in Dublin, they’ll all be asking themselves the same question: When can we actually get back to making music in front of a live audience? When will our audiences be comfident enough to come back in large enough numbers that we can actually pay the bills? In the meantime as restrictions are loosened, playing concerts behind closed doors but live is probably the way forward.”

The series opens on 1 June with a piano recital by Stephen Hough which will mark Wigmore Hall’s temporary re-opening and Radio 3’s resumption of live concert broadcasting as part of the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine.

The other performers will be: James Baillieu (piano), Benjamin Baker (violin), Iain Burnside (piano), Allan Clayton (tenor), Michael Collins (clarinet), Imogen Cooper (piano), Lucy Crowe (soprano), Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Julius Drake (piano) Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), Angela Hewitt (piano), Elizabeth Kenny (lute), Pavel Kolesnikov (piano), Paul Lewis (piano), Michael McHale (piano), Joseph Middleton (piano), Mark Padmore (tenor), Hyeyoon Park (violin), Timothy Ridout (viola), Sean Shibe (guitar), Anna Tilbrook (piano), Samson Tsoy (piano), Mitsuko Uchida (piano), Adam Walker (flute), Roderick Williams (baritone).

The series of lunchtime concerts opens on 1 June with a piano recital by Stephen Hough and can be listened to on BBC Radio 3 and streamed on the Wigmore Hall website. 

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