Every Sunday morning, regulars and new faces come together at Wigmore Hall for an hour of beautiful chamber music, then stick around afterwards to socialise over a glass of coffee or sherry. The Journal meets staff, musicians and concertgoers to find out what it is that makes these concerts so special
Interviews: Jean-Paul Aubin-Parvu
Images: Orlando Gili
Director of Wigmore Hall
Wigmore Hall’s Sunday morning coffee concerts have been around since 1979. They were the first of their kind in the world and were launched partly as a reaction to comments from members of the Jewish community, who couldn’t attend our Friday night concerts because of their religious commitments. The concerts have gone on to become a launch pad for young ensembles and have attracted audiences of all ages. They are a great taster for somebody who just wants to see what we’re doing—rather than coming to a two-hour concert, you can come to a one-hour concert for a pretty low price.
The atmosphere of a morning concert is rather special. At this time of day, you have natural daylight filling the hall, which is very beautiful. It is kind of a spiritual hour. It’s a way of zoning out and just communing with this wonderful music on your day off, forgetting the troubles of the world for an hour. People really do feel elated afterwards. Many can only attend on Sunday mornings and they tell me it makes their week.
Of the 48 or so coffee concerts that we do each year, 20 of them will be string quartets, because that’s something this particular audience really loves. None will be song recitals, though, as there’s an unwritten rule that you don’t make people sing too early in the morning. If you’re a singer, you’d probably have to get up at about 5am, because your voice doesn’t wake up until a few hours after you do.
I am a regular at these concerts—I programme them myself and pop in most Sundays. As artistic director, they give me a testing ground to introduce young artists without the pressure of a full evening recital, which is a huge amount of music to prepare. I can bring them to the hall on a Sunday morning for their first concert and they are guaranteed a full house. Word begins to spread, so when you put them on in the evening maybe a year or so later, the house is also full.
When I get my priority booking form, I block-book these Sunday morning concerts. I just tick them all. This will be about my sixth year, on a regular basis, and I come here with my friend Alison. For me, music feeds the soul—it’s the sheer lyricism. I don’t play an instrument, but I just adore music, and when I inherited a tiny bit of money from my mother’s estate, I thought: “What do I really want to do with this? What have I missed? Shall I go travelling?” But I decided that what I’d missed most was live classical music, so that’s why I come.Wigmore Hall is absolutely beautiful. I have been to other venues, but this is my favourite. Partly it’s the wonderful acoustics, but also the intimacy. I returned to the hall after not having been here for about 25 years, and the moment I walked through those doors it was just like coming home. The atmosphere hadn’t changed.
After an evening concert, I have to rush off to catch the train home to Billericay, but on Sunday mornings I have time to meet the musicians and say thank you. Particularly as I’m going blind, that’s rather important—it means it’s going to be a memory set in amber.
We tend to stick around for a while. Alison has her sherry and I have my coffee—I shouldn’t really drink it, but I do. It can be a very social occasion. Some of the regulars will meet up and sit together at a table downstairs, so it’s very much like a little club for them. I use it as my sort of fix for music for the week. I usually get home at about 3pm—and then have to do all the ironing that my sons have provided for me.
There is a warm atmosphere here, and people seem to form friendships. It puts you in a good mood for the rest of the day. What I love most about music and singing is the way that you can touch someone and inspire their soul, in one way or another. I’m an opera singer and I have performed in London as a tenor quite a few times with various companies. I will be going up to Opera North in Leeds towards the end of the year and also have something happening in Taunton. My first gig in London, in 2012, was actually here at Wigmore Hall, but it was for a hall hire for a friend of mine who asked me to sing at his 60th birthday!
I used to sing when I was very young, but I came from a poor family and so didn’t have lessons or anything. I have been a regular at these Sunday concerts for about 30 years. I used to come with my husband, but sadly he’s now profoundly deaf and has stopped coming. There’s nothing in the world like music. I always sit near the front of the hall and it feels as if the musicians are playing just for me. We get what royalty get, and yet it’s so cheap. I come regardless of what’s on, because then you get surprises as well as your favourites. I have met loads of the regulars over the years. I always have a sherry afterwards—I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday morning. I live in Hampstead and walk here through the park, which is lovely: feed the squirrels, then arrive at Wigmore Hall for an hour of beautiful classical music. Then I go home for a nap.
Peter Paul Kainrath
I am from Italy. I am the artistic director of the Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition and the intendent of the Klangforum Vienna, an ensemble of contemporary music. This is my first time at one of these Sunday morning concerts, but I have been to Wigmore Hall several times in the past. It has a huge tradition of bringing together the highest quality chamber music. Today I came to listen to the Kopelman Quartet—I am very curious because I’ve never had the chance to see them perform before. I had an appointment in London yesterday, so decided to stay for this morning concert.
Zofia Fenrych and son Cyprian
I come from a musical family. I used to be a pianist and my 11-year-old son Cyprian plays the violin. We often come to concerts here and I actually know Blythe Teh Engstroem, who is performing today with The Kopelman Quartet. I love Wigmore Hall, both for the acoustics and the beautiful building itself. This is the perfect thing to do on a Sunday morning. To me it’s a spiritual feast of music, almost like going to church.
Usher and commissionaire
What makes these concerts so special is all the regulars who come every week. I recognise so many of the faces and depending on how busy it is, we sometimes have time to chat. Music is just kind of my life now. I am a singer, too—soprano—and a student just up the road at the Royal Academy of Music. I have performed at the Academy and a little bit around London, but nowhere like here. I’m still quite young, though—we’ll see what happens!
Violin, The Kopelman Quartet
For 16 years, we have performed all over the world, but to me Wigmore Hall is very, very special. Really, for chamber music, I think this is just one of the most beautiful halls in the world. The acoustics, the atmosphere and the audience all blend beautifully together.
I play the guitar—not classical, just simple chord stuff. Compared to what I play myself, the music here today makes a refreshing change. I am with my friends Max and Joe. Max found these concerts on the internet and we’ve been coming for the last few months. None of us would usually do anything on Sunday mornings, so it gets us up, and the sherry afterwards is a nice touch. Wigmore Hall is such an intimate venue and there’s a really nice, relaxed atmosphere. The quality of everything we’ve seen here has been fantastic, so we just keep coming back.
Blythe Teh Engstroem
Guest viola with The Kopelman Quarter
This is my first time performing with the Kopelman Quartet and also my first time at Wigmore Hall. Performing here is a dream come true. This is a hallowed place for making chamber music—there’s something very special about the acoustics and the audiences are very knowledgeable, as are the people who run the venue. Wigmore Hall has such a huge tradition and it really is a big honour to perform here. What’s it like playing so early in the morning? I suppose a lot of musicians are night-birds, but not me. I like it. I’m actually quite awake.