WNPR

A Radical Fix for Classical Concerts: Shorten Them

Aug 18, 2016

Shorter concerts would acknowledge shorter attention spans. So be it. Where music is concerned, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

These days, just about everybody in the classical music world has an idea about how to enliven the concert experience.

Stephen Hough, the brilliant British-born pianist and composer, has just put forward what might be the single most effective one, not to mention unquestionably the least expensive: Make concerts shorter, already.

Writing this week in Radio Times, and reported on in The Strad among other places, Hough says, simply:

“At some point in the early 20th century we settled into a pattern: concerts should start early evening and last roughly two hours… I think we should consider removing the intermission and starting either earlier or later than 7:30 pm – 60 to 80 minutes of music, then out.”

Hough is, of course, not the first person to bring up the possibility of shorter, or intermissionless, concerts. But he is among the first front-rank performers -- this is a man who is frequently a soloist with the world’s most celebrated orchestras -- to put the idea out there quite so baldly.

There are, let’s acknowledge, a few orchestras already dipping their toes into this idea. And the chamber music world, which as a rule is light years ahead of the orchestra world with regard to concert experimentation of any kind, has been tinkering with the concept for a while now.

But if we were to feed all the classical programs presented in the past couple of years into a database -- and someone has probably done that -- I’m sure we’d find that the vast majority of programs are roughly two hours, often more, and with an intermission.

What would be the obstacles to Hough’s idea?

Stephen Hough
Credit Andrew Crowley / StephenHough.com

For openers, it would be a change. And the classical concert world doesn’t do change very well, as evidenced by the fact that the no-applause-between-movements custom -- decried for decades by almost every sentient performer and commentator -- lives on and on as if it actually made any sense.

And then there’s the question of dumbing down. In many quarters, shorter concerts would be seen -- are already seen -- as a capitulation to our lazy, untutored, ADHD-afflicted modern audiences.

Let them sit there for two hours or more, like we had to do!

Of course, this argument smacks of the rhetoric that used to swirl around the opera world, when projected super-titles were first appearing in theaters.

“Why can’t audiences just bone up on the libretto before they come to the theater, as in the olden days,” the naysayers would bellow. 

I don’t know. Maybe because they were put off by the prospect of memorizing how the gypsy infant (in reality an abducted Moorish duchess) was raised by witches, one of whom turned out to be her coquettish maid’s great aunt on her lecherous “stepfather’s” side?

Bulletin: Super-titles are now in every opera house in the world, and the artform has survived.

Hand copied parts of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
Credit Opus33 / Creative Commons

Still, let’s be honest: In a way, shorter concerts would indeed be an acknowledgement of shorter attention spans. So be it. Where music is concerned, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The now-famous 1808 all-Beethoven concert in Vienna, which featured the premieres of both the Symphonies No. 5 and 6, along with the Fourth Piano Concerto and a few other things, was something like four-and-a-half hours long. Times change, folks.

To me, this is more than a theoretical issue. Back in the 1980s, when I was the music critic for The Hartford Courant and going to a lot of concerts, I tried to be a student of audiences and their responses. I can remember becoming aware that there was often a moment, toward the end of a longish or possibility difficult program, when the audience would almost palpably separate itself from the performance. Sometimes the moment felt sudden: eyelids grew sluggish, heads listed, shoulders slumped. The room -- as it sometimes does even more noticeably at a play -- had parted ways with what was going on up on the stage. What had, just minutes earlier, been an atmosphere of engagement, was now one of inertness.

Michael Lankester led the Hartford Symphony from 1985 to 2000.
Credit Hartford Symphony Orchestra

I mentioned this phenomenon one day to Michael Lankester, who was then the music director of the Hartford Symphony. Interestingly, he said he could sometimes sense that moment himself, even from the podium and with his back to the audience. It wasn’t simply a matter of coughing or rustling of programs (though they, too, are telltale symptoms), but of an intuitive feeling -- that the rapt intensity every musician strives to achieve had begun to physically leak out of the room.

The point is that altering the duration of a concert is not necessarily some gimmicky device designed to wring out a few quick extra dollars in ticket sales from distractible millennials. It’s really a central feature of how a musical performance unfolds, and how it’s received by the listener -- including the experienced listener.

So the dumb-downers may scoff, but when it comes from someone of the stature of Stephen Hough, this is an idea that all of us who care about this music -- or any music -- should be willing to consider.

Musicians, ticket buyers, presenters: what’s your take?

Steve Metcalf can be reached at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.