One of my esteemed colleagues recently posted on Facebook the suggestion that classical music concerts are too long. Some suggested that 90 minutes, without intermission, should be the maximum. As the sometimes contentious discussion moved along, it turned out that there were many more factors to consider than simply the length of the program.
Here are a few of them:
The Concert Experience.
Seating comfort and hall lighting: Does feeling cramped inhibit your ability to enjoy the performance? If it’s pitch black how can you read the program notes? If it’s too light does the rest of the audience distract you?
Food and drink: Should there be a café or bar where you can dine before and after a concert, and at intermission, to make the event a real evening out? Could you even bring food and drink into the auditorium.
Intermissions: How long should they be? Just enough time to catch your breath before the big symphony on the second half? Enough time for everyone to go to the bathroom? Would that stretch the evening out too long?
Is it stultifying to have to sit in silence for two to two-and-a-half hours? It’s not a funeral after all! Why so somber? Would it be better to be able to express one’s appreciation more frequently on in a greater variety of ways, like they did in prior centuries? Not that throwing tomatoes should be an option…
Or does freedom of expression infringe upon the enjoyment of the person sitting next to me? I think there’s consensus that cellphones and small children should be left at home, but other than that…
The music on the concert should form a coherent whole rather than just be a scattershot of music. And they need to be in a logical order. You would not want to attack an audience at the beginning of a concert with a Tchaikovsky symphony and finish it with a Rossini overture.
Do longer concerts tax the musicians’ energy to the extent that the performance suffers?
Have our attention spans be rewired by sound bites and Instagram so that sitting for the length of a traditional concert is no longer desirable? If so, who should change, the listeners or the orchestra? Some of those on the FB thread say that concerts over two hours are too long and so they leave at intermission. Maybe that’s the best solution? Those who wish to leave can. Those who wish to hear the whole concert also can. Everyone gets their wish.
I can go either way on concert length. For symphony concerts, two to two-and-a-half hours with an intermission seems ideal. The standard formula—overture, concerto, intermission, major symphony—has worked very well, as have endless variations to it. Yes, I’m tired after playing a long concert. But I should be if I worked hard enough!
I can’t understand why people consider it an ordeal to sit through a concert with a Mozart overture, Mendelssohn concerto, and Brahms symphony. Yes, concerts can be tiring. After all, most concerts are at night. And they can be challenging. Think, Mahler Sixth. But consider what a treasure the music is! What a gift!
On the other hand, I’ve been music director of the Vivaldi by Candlelight series for fifteen years, and those concerts are short: they last from seventy-five to ninety minutes, without intermission. The reason for that is simple. It’s the repertoire, stupid! Most of the compositions we play are from eight to fifteen minutes long. Six or seven of those are more than enough to provide a satisfying evening of great music.
Maybe the solution is for orchestras to provide more variety, with some concerts traditional full length and others shorter. I think what everyone would agree upon is that both the music and the quality of the performance should be the best that can be provided.
Gerald Elias, a former violinist with the Boston Symphony and associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony, is author of the Daniel Jacobus mystery series that takes place in the dark corners of the classical music world. He has also written Symphonies & Scorpions, a memoir of life as a touring musician. For more of his books, please travel through his website: geraldeliasmanofmystery.wordpress.com