Into unknown waters

 

Judith Woodworth's retirement from the NCH leaves a legacy of determination and innovation, writes ARMINTA WALLACE



“I came across such wonderful kindness and care, both from the medical profession and from family and friends,” she says. “The warmth that was expressed towards me was really uplifting. It’s hugely traumatic to have to face your vulnerability when you have never had a serious illness in your life. You learn a great deal of things about yourself, and what you’re capable of overcoming.” Quite a lot, is the answer.

Those who know Woodworth well know that beneath that gentle smile lies a steely determination which has stood her in good stead over many years in the music business. In fact, that very determination got her into the business in the first place.

When she left Trinity College in the mid 1970s, there were very few jobs in the arts in Ireland. “So I got a boat to London – and arrived in Thatcher’s England, in the middle of all the strikes,” she says. “I remember going back to my flat in darkness and cold – having to light candles because the gas and the electricity and everything had been cut off.”

She got a secretarial job at an agency called Ibbs and Tillett, where her boss was a 60-something who smoked like a trooper. Within six months she had died from pneumonia – leaving Woodworth in charge of the careers of some of the UK’s best known singers. “She had a big Victorian desk heaped two feet high with papers. That was her filing system. I had to root through it all and find out what was the state of play with contracts and so on. Eventually one of the other directors – who had completely ignored me and gone back into their own office and closed the doors – came in and said, ‘oh, Miss Woodworth, I think you’re doing all right. Would you like to carry on?’ That was the start of my career in artist management.”

In due course, she was headhunted by one of the biggest agencies in the business, HarrisonParrott. Then, in the early 1980s, she was invited to take over the Music in Great Irish Houses festival.

“I did it from London for a couple of years. But I began to realise my heart was really back in Ireland. So I got in my little car and drove home. I had about £1,000 in savings – and with that I had to set up my own business. And foolishly, or naively, or completely innocently – possibly all three – I conceived the notion of a celebrity concert series.”

She assembled a stellar list of visiting musicians, including Alfred Brendel, Barry Douglas and Radu Lupu. To her amazement, she says, people subscribed. For more than a decade she survived as an independent impresario. She was happy – so happy that, when the job as director of the National Concert Hall came up in 1993, she initially decided not to apply.

“Then, one day, I was having lunch with Michael Colgan from the Gate Theatre. He said, ‘Judy, there’s a time in your life when a door opens – if you don’t go through, you may never get an opportunity to go there again. Go for it’.” She went for it, and was appointed. “I have never, never regretted it. It has been a privilege, a challenge and immensely satisfying to be involved in the running of a national cultural institution.”

When Woodworth took over at the NCH, there were concerts scheduled for 200 days of the year. Now it’s in use for 360 days – often with two or three concerts per day. She counts this among her proudest achievements, together with the broadening of genres which sees regular jazz, world music and popular gigs at the hall. Another triumph is the development of a generous and creative outreach and education programme.

“We bring in teachers and give them the support to continue the musical training process with their own pupils,” she says. “As we know, there is quite a gap at primary level in this country – which is sad, to say the least.”

The education department organises everything from regular sessions for tiny tots and parents to programmes of music in hospitals and homes for the elderly. “Another huge success has been Blow the Dust Off Your Trumpet, the orchestra that was founded for older people. We’re thrilled that the hall has acted as a catalyst for that. It’s a template that could happen in many different places – and hopefully will.”

Live music is, however, a notoriously perilous business. There was the time an international pianist walked off the stage near the end of his recital. A conductor had the symptoms of a heart attack mid-performance and had to be taken away in an ambulance. On another occasion, the Oslo Philharmonic arrived on the day of a concert – only to discover that their instruments and black-tie evening wear were stranded in the UK. “The audience were all in their seats,” Woodworth recalls. “And yours truly had to go out on stage and explain why we would be late starting the concert.

“When I said we had an orchestra but no instruments, they all roared with laughter. They assumed I was joking.” For an hour, the obliging Norwegians came out and entertained the crowd with a variety of party pieces: unaccompanied folk singing, a jazz session, a little chamber music. “We took a break, the lorry arrived, and they went on in big heavy jumpers and trainers and played a terrific concert.”

There have been other ups and downs during Woodworth’s time at the hall. “One major step was in 2006, when the State bought the whole site from UCD,” she says. An ambitious redevelopment plan, drawn up under the aegis of a public-private partnership, has not – so far – got further than the drawing-board. “We’re having to reconsider our plans in the light of the very serious downturn. All the stakeholders are assessing what would be the best way forward.”

She insists the extra space represents not a failure, but an opportunity. Maybe there’ll be new performance spaces – maybe extra facilities for patrons. “A time will come when there will be tremendous opportunities for developing. Just when that time is, we’ll have to wait and see.”

What pleases her above all else, she says, is the fondness people have for the National Concert Hall. That goes for patrons, who return week after week, month after month, year after year; for the staff, whose commitment and creativity help make the hall what it is; for overseas artists, who repeatedly praise the warmth of its acoustic; and for Irish artists, whose progress on the international stage over the past 20 years has, Woodworth says, given her enormous pleasure.

“I think there are a lot of good things about the hall going into unknown, and perhaps choppy waters. It’s in a very good position, in my view, to continue to be a very big player in the whole live music environment.” She takes a similarly upbeat view of her own uncharted waters. Medically, she has been given the all-clear; she looks terrific. Nevertheless she has been forced – over the past 12 months – to take stock of her priorities. “I have really, really loved my years at the National Concert Hall,” she says. “It’s going to be a big change for me, whatever happens in the future. But I can’t believe that I won’t be involved in some way – even peripherally – in the arts. There are great possibilities for myself and for other people who have worked, whether as administrators or practitioners, in the arts world to come together and try to give something back to the arts community.

“That’s what I’m heading towards thinking about at the moment. But we’ll have to wait and see.”

DIRECTOR'S CUTS

“THERE are so many artists I’ve had the best of times with, that it’s hard to select just a few,” says Judith Woodworth.

“And I mean after the concert, as well. Andras Schiff is great fun. He has many a good story. Another extraordinary young man is the Chinese pianist Lang Lang. He performed here quite early on, before he became a megastar, and when he was back recently he had not changed a tiny bit.”

As for her favourite concerts during her tenure, she nominates three: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim, the New York Philharmonic with Kurt Masur, and the Berlin Philharmonic with Sir Simon Rattle.

The last took years of negotiation and it was, she says, “an accolade to the hall – as well as to Ireland – that they wanted to come”.