British pianist Stephen Hough has sparked a lively debate by suggesting in an article that classical concerts could be “shorter” to attract younger or new audiences, or allow venues and musicians to offer two concerts in one evening. He has also hinted that intervals could be ditched in favour of a performance lasting around 70 minutes, and that concerts could start at different times (in the UK the standard start time for an evening concert is 7.30pm) perhaps to allow two performances in the same evening. Reactions online to these suggestions have ranged from outrage (at the thought of anyone messing around with the “traditional concert format”) to applause (for creative thinking).
In fact what Stephen Hough is suggesting is not that new. Many musicians, ensembles, orchestras and venues have been experimenting with different ways of presenting classical music for some time, from rush-hour concerts at 6.30pm to Wigmore Lates, 45-minute lunchtime concerts or lecture-recitals. Earlier this year I met and interviewed John Landor whose innovative Meet the Music concerts allow audience members to get right up close and personal with the musicians and the music, literally, while the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has for some time offered concerts in pubs and late-night “speed-dating” sessions where the audience can meet the musicians after the performance.
Trying to encourage “young people” to come to classical music concerts is an ongoing preoccupation of ………well, anyone with an opinion on the future of classical music, it would appear. There seems to be a current misconception about young people that because they are used to the instant gratification of the internet and platforms like YouTube, Spotify, Netflix et al, they are incapable of sitting through a concert or performance lasting more than 30 minutes, maximum, in one go. Personally, I think it is less to do with this and more to do with education – or lack thereof – that has inculcated in them the idea that classical music is “boring”.
Personally, I have never had a problem with the length of concerts. I think this is partly due to the fact that from a very young age I was taken to concerts and opera at which I was asked by my parents to sit quietly and attentively. In fact, my mother used to say to me that it was “very rude to yawn or fidget” during the performance “because the musicians can see you and will be offended if they think you’re not listening properly!”. Having been on the other side of the stage, so to speak, as a performer in recent years, I am not so sure she was right (I tend not to look at the audience, as a pianist, until I stand to bow), but I think her comments certainly taught me to be a well-mannered and attentive concert goer. In over 40 years of concert going I have only twice fallen asleep during a concert, once during a Prom which I had rushed up the M3 in the car to get to (and I also fell asleep momentarily at the wheel of the car during the journey). I also feel slightly embarrassed if I leave during the interval (again, something I rarely do).
The length of a concert is dictated by many factors, including the programme of music being performed, type of venue, and time of day. Sometimes performers like to run a whole 70-90-minute programme without a break (Pierre-Laurent Aimard did this a few year’s ago with his Liszt Project cycle at the Southbank), and certain works, such as Messiaen’s Vingt Regards, are best performed (in my humble opinion) without a break to allow listener, and performer, to appreciate the arc of the narrative. But some repertoire is very demanding for the soloist and an interval may be necessary not only for the performer/s to have a break, a pee and a drink, and regroup before going back on stage, but also for the audience to pause and reflect on what they have heard, have a break, chat with friends and go back for the second half with refreshed ears and mind.
And I think it’s easy to forget too that for many people going to a concert is very much a social experience: it’s not just about the music, though of course that is the greater part of the evening, but it is also about meeting friends, sharing the excitement of live music, the conversations afterwards about what you heard.
Other factors dictate how long one can last in the auditorium, such as comfort of seats (Cadogan Hall has the comfiest seats in London), climate (the Royal Albert Hall can sometimes be unbearably hot and airless), and quality of the “social areas” (bars, foyers etc).
So I think what Stephen Hough is really suggesting is that it’s important to keep thinking of creative and exciting ways to present classical music. Concerts may be short or long, with or without interval, or formal dress. Performers may speak to the audience beforehand, or be interviewed, or maybe there is a pre-concert talk, or a post-concert Q&A session. We don’t need “gimmicks” to sell classical music – and most young people can spot a gimmick which has been thought up by a focus group or a bunch of middle aged people trying (and failing) to get on down with the kids. The most important thing is not to patronise audiences or talk down to them.
This is a very interesting discussion – feel free to leave your thoughts on this subject in the comments box below.
Readers may be interested in the Music Marathon project at St John’s Smith Square, London which takes place over the weekend of 17 and 18 September as part of Open House London 2016. Soloists, choirs and ensembles will perform over a 24-hour period while the doors of St John’s will be open during the entire weekend to allow people to come in and explore the building, while also enjoying performances by a wide range of musicians (I will be performing there from 1.15-1.30pm on Saturday 17 September).