Wigmore Hall's beloved Head of Archives, Paula Best, takes us through her early years competing in the Feiseanna, her move from Dublin to London, and her passion for the Hall.
What was your musical upbringing like as a child growing up in the North Side of Dublin?
My parents were not musicians, but they enjoyed listening to music, and gave each of us — I have three sisters — a chance to learn the piano. I was the only one who continued with the lessons, although two of my sisters are singers. I had my first piano lessons at the age of 5 with a local teacher, Dora Strong. I won a scholarship to the Royal Irish Academy of Music when I was 16 and continued my studies there with Rhona Marshall, who was the most marvellous teacher — always very encouraging.
I think my musical upbringing was probably similar to most young musicians in Ireland at the time: taking the local centre examinations of the RIAM and entering the competitions at Feis Matthew (I still have the ‘highly commended’ certificate I received in the ‘Under 9s’ at Feis Matthew) and also at Feis Ceoil. I continued to compete at Feis Ceoil up to senior level, and won a couple of prizes, both in solo competitions and in chamber music. The Feis was a great experience for us. In those days the competitions were held in various halls in Abbey Street, and we would run from one hall to the other to catch some of the singing, instrumental or chamber music competitions, and usually finished off the evening in Wynne’s Hotel celebrating the various successes.
As one of the more specialized instruments of the classical world, how did you become acquainted with the harpsichord?
I was very fortunate to have some inspirational teachers at the Academy. It was the wonderful Doris Keogh who encouraged me to take up the harpsichord so that I could accompany some of her flute and recorder students in the Baroque repertoire. I used to accompany her students regularly at their lessons and also helped her with the Capriol Consort. I studied flute with her up to Grade 6. She really opened up a whole new world to me beyond that of a solo pianist. John Beckett was another inspiring teacher, and I took to the harpsichord from the beginning. Although the technique is very different to the piano, I found that it also helped my piano technique. When John moved to London I studied for a short time with Malcolm Proud.
Where does your heart lie in terms of its repertoire?
I have always enjoyed performing and listening to the music of J.S. Bach (both on piano and harpsichord), but my heart lies with the French Baroque, and in particular the music of François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau. I have also performed some modern music and gave the first performance of John Buckley’s Now Wake the Purple Year for solo harpsichord, commissioned by Newpark Comprehensive School and dedicated to me.
What motivated your move to London — was it a challenging or exciting time for you?
I had attended some harpsichord summer courses in France and through some British musicians I met there I learnt about the Early Music Course at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. I started going to London occasionally for lessons with Robert Woolley and then decided to apply to the Guildhall. I was delighted when they accepted me for the course. I studied harpsichord with Christopher Kite and baroque flute with Stephen Preston. As part of the course we also studied medieval music and baroque dance, and together with some of my fellow students, we played chamber music just for pleasure. We also gave recitals in some of the churches in the city of London.
I originally planned to stay in London for just a year, and it was both challenging and exciting. I enjoyed every moment of that first year. London is a great city with such a wide choice of cultural events. Even before I moved to London, I would go to a concert there whenever I travelled from Dublin for harpsichord lessons. It was also wonderful to be working and living with people who all had a common interest. I shared a house with five other musicians, and we had such fun. There was always someone practicing, be it flute, recorder or harpsichord, or singing, and we regularly sat around the dinner table together in the evenings enjoying a good meal.
Why did you sidestep the possibility of a career in performance for that of arts administration and archival management?
I’m not sure that I ever seriously considered a career in performance, other than giving occasional solo and chamber music recitals. In Dublin I had been teaching piano and recorder for a number of years — at the RIAM and Newpark Comprehensive School, among others, and gave recitals from time to time. I was also an examiner for the RIAM Local Centre Examinations. I took a chance in moving to London, as I wanted to gain some more experience of music and life, but without really thinking about the consequences. If it hadn’t worked out, I suppose I would have returned to Dublin. As it turns out, it was the best decision I ever made, and now, exactly 30 years later, London is home, although I do come back to Ireland regularly to see my family.
Where did you learn your craft?
I haven’t received any formal training as an arts administrator or an archivist, but have learnt most of what I know ‘on the job’, apart from doing some short courses. There was a very small staff when I started working at the Hall, which meant taking on responsibility for a wide variety of things. The house managers also had to work in the box office, and to look after the artists both for rehearsals and in the evening. I also ran the small bar. We had to ensure that everything ran smoothly on the evening of the concert. It was a very good grounding in arts administration.
I took on responsibility for the archives as I was (and remain) fascinated by the Hall’s history, and want to make sure that the current material is retained for future generations.
An inherent attention to detail is fundamental to the preparation and production of concert programmes notes — what is your process?
Throughout the season we produce a vast number of printed programmes — probably about 350 — so it is essential that we are well prepared, even though we will only print a programme a few days in advance of the concert so that we can incorporate last minute changes if necessary. If there is a change to the programme after it has gone to press, we will produce an insert to slip inside the programme. We have a regular pool of note writers and translators and will have commissioned the notes well in advance. We also have a large database of song texts and translations that we can draw upon. As we don’t usually have time to see more than one proof of a programme, we aim to have it as accurate as possible from the outset. We have also worked with the same designer and printer for many years. It is important to build up such a relationship, as you know you can rely on them to deliver the programmes in time for the concert.
How did the opportunity to come to Wigmore Hall present itself?
When I moved to London I needed to earn some money. I was fortunate to get some teaching at the Blackheath Conservatoire in South East London, and John Beckett suggested that I ask Padraig Cusack, who was a house manager at the Wigmore, if there was any work there. Padraig gave me a job as a backstage usher. I was responsible for looking after the artists and turning pages for the pianists when required. This was a wonderful experience. I met so many great artists, some of whom have become friends.
By the end of my year at Guildhall, I was working two nights backstage and another two nights serving in the small bar. By then, I knew that this was where I wanted to work. Again, I was fortunate that they needed a part-time box office assistant. I applied for this and was successful, and in the following year I became a full time member of staff as one of the house managers. I also assisted William Lyne, the Director at the time, in the preparation and proofreading of some of the printed programmes. This was in the late 1980s before we had computers or even a fax machine. It was a much longer process, but we didn’t produce as many programmes as we do today. When the Hall closed for refurbishment in 1991–2, I worked as an orchestral tour manager and at an artists’ management agency.
When we were preparing for the Hall’s closure in 1992 I discovered all the old concert programmes dating back to 1901, the year the Hall opened. They were all stuck into very large, leather-bound books, and some of the programmes were damaged, but I was fascinated looking back at all the artists who had appeared over the years. The list of great artists who have performed at the Hall is endless and includes Busoni (who performed on the opening concert), Cortot, Schnabel, Pachmann, Rubinstein, Solomon, Casals, Ysaÿe, Egon Petri, Myra Hess, Caruso, Emmy Destinn, Elena Gerhardt, Joseph O’Meara and John McCormack, to name but a few. There were also names I recognized from the competitions at the Feis Ceoil — Hamilton Harty, Gervase Elwes and Dennis O’Sullivan.
When the Hall reopened in November 1992 I continued to help with the preparation of the printed programmes and the brochures, and also took over responsibility for keeping the archive. In our Centenary year (2001) we launched a very successful appeal for the conservation and restoration of the early programmes.
Take us through a typical day in the life of the Head of Archive.
A typical day will usually involve checking emails as soon as I arrive at the office and then looking through the newspapers for reviews and articles on the Hall, or any other articles that might be of interest or importance. I get a number of requests from people researching their family history and am always delighted if I can find the programmes for them. If someone telephones me with a request, I can often check the database while we are speaking and give an immediate answer to his or her query. We also have requests from researchers who wish to come in to look through the programme collection and I will arrange a date with them or direct them to the Royal College of Music where some of our collection is housed. Space is limited at the Hall and although we have a new archive room, it is not large enough to hold the complete programme archive. There are still quite a few boxes of material that I need to look through and to sort out. Some of our archive is at Westminster City Archive, and some day I will have time to look through this material.
Although I am no longer responsible for producing the printed programmes, I still help the Publications department if necessary. I collate the material for the monthly diaries and for some of the brochures. I also produce the printed programmes for the early years, schools concerts, family concerts and study days for our Learning department, and the summer and autumn editions of our Friends Newsletter. A considerable amount of time is spent proofreading. This might be just a letter or an article, or one of our series brochures, but I do try to check it as carefully as possible. My day is always varied and interesting, and at the end of the day there is the possibility of listening to a wonderful concert.
What does Wigmore Hall mean to you?
I cannot imagine London without Wigmore Hall. It is such a wonderful place with a fabulous acoustic, and the perfect place to hear some of the most sublime music performed by great artists. I feel very privileged to work in such an environment and still enjoy coming in to work every day, even after thirty years.
Tell us about the Hall’s Archives and its value within contemporary society.
The Archive contains concert ephemera, correspondence and business papers, photographs and newspaper cuttings from 1901, when the Hall opened as Bechstein Hall, through to the present day. We have a growing number of audio and video recordings. The Hall opened at a good time when the West End was being developed with the opening of new-style department stores, and also theatres such as the Coliseum and Palladium. The Queen’s Hall had recently opened, and was attracting some of the big named artists and audiences, and some of those performers also came down the road to the Wigmore to give their solo recitals. The material in the archive is a fascinating documentation of music making in London throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century, and provides vital information, not only on the Hall’s own history, but also on the musical, social and cultural heritage of the entire city. It is an important reference for anyone interested in London’s musical history.
You recently acquired the Gertrud Hopkins Collection — what is the historical significance of such a find?
Gertrud Hopkins was the sister of the pianist Harold Bauer, who appeared a number of times at the Hall in the early years, before he moved to the US. Gertrud also performed at the Hall and her programmes are included in the collection as well as some of Harold’s. Not all of the collection relates to the Wigmore, but there are some fascinating photos of artists linked with Hopkins and her brother, including Fritz Kreisler, Pablo Casals, Leopold Godowsky and Jacques Thibaud, and there is some interesting correspondence from Harold Bauer to his sister. The collection also contains some of his music and a handful of manuscripts. Bauer was very successful in his early career and was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society medal in 1915, but he has been rather neglected in recent years. His complete recordings have been released recently which might lead to renewed interest in his playing. The Hopkins Collection would certainly be of interest in providing further insights into his life.
Is there a dream collection that you would like to get your hands on?
That’s a difficult question to answer. One of my dream collections would have to be recordings of concerts that took place at the Hall in the early years of the twentieth century. Columbia made some recordings at the Hall in the 1920s, but I think they may have been studio recordings rather than live concerts. I know it’s now possible to hear recordings of many of the great artists from that period, but I haven’t yet discovered any that were recorded live at the Hall. Thankfully, we are able to preserve some of the more recent performances our Wigmore Hall Live label.
Are there any forthcoming plans to digitize Wigmore Hall’s archival treasures?
Yes, we hope to achieve this within the next few years. We are already creating a database of performances, starting from the opening concert in 1901. My assistant, Emily Woolf, is very happy to type in all the details of the events — from names of artists, works performed to ticket prices and make of piano. So far the database includes everything up to 1984, although we are missing some programmes from the late 1940s and early 50s. We hope to fill in some, if not all, of the gaps from other sources. The records are computerized from 1996, so there are only a few years to add to the database. We shall then start to scan in some of the programmes.
The 2015/2016 season boasts a wonderful array of music making at the Hall — are you looking forward to any performances in particular?
Our season opened with the outstanding countertenor Iestyn Davies performing Handel arias with The English Concert. I am passionate about song recitals and Schubert’s Lieder in particular. Florian Boesch has just launched our two-season survey of Schubert’s complete songs. I’m particularly looking forward to Christian Gerhaher’s concerts — he is 'Singer in Residence' this season. I have enjoyed hearing the Latvian mezzo Elīna Garanča at Covent Garden and will be interested to hear her in her debut recital in December.
It’s very difficult to choose a particular favourite as there are so many great concerts this season. I always look forward to the Takács Quartet concerts. I have known them almost since I started at the Hall and they have become good friends. Sir András Schiff gives two recitals in April of sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. These recitals are not to be missed! Another concert I shall want to hear is with Les Arts Florissants, just one of the superb French early music ensembles who have performed at the Hall in recent years, and I shall definitely go to the recital by the exciting Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani next July.
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