Don’t Stop

Don’t Stop

What ushers hand everyone after an hourlong Family Concert by the NSO

Last weekend, I went down to Washington, D.C. to chat with Leonard Slatkin for NewMusicBox (stay tuned for “Cover” in January). In the process, I managed to attend two orchestral concerts at the Kennedy Center. Both were billed as concerts for young people. The first, called Youth Orchestra Day, placed members from six youth orchestras from around the region alongside members of the National Symphony for performances of a contemporary orchestration of a Bach fugue, Sibelius’s Finlandia and two movements of the Shostakovich Fifth. The second, an NSO Family Concert featuring the world premiere of David Del Tredici’s 30-minute Rip Van Winkle for narrator and orchestra, was an all-American potpourri also featuring music by Copland, Grofé, and Morton Gould, among others.

What ushers hand everyone after an hourlong Family Concert by the NSO

What these two concerts had in common, aside from both having repertoire exclusively from within the past century, was that both lasted around an hour and neither had an intermission. They were all the better because of it and it started to make me think that perhaps the intermission is an unnecessary anachronism. Once you’re being transported by a sequence of pieces of music, the last thing you want to do is to break the music’s spell, fight your way through the crowds for some air or small talk only to find your way back minutes later attempting to recapture the concentration necessary to listen which is now completely gone.

Of course, you’re thinking, it would be difficult to keep a very large group in its place for a much longer time. But that’s what movies do all the time. And maybe having shorter concerts is not such a bad idea anyway except for those special occasions where the compositions themselves call for a longer playing time: Mahler and his ilk, good ol’ Morty or La Monte, etc.

For the most part, despite some folks claims that live concerts are the real music and that recordings are not, the majority of most people’s listening experiences are on recordings and those experiences are what shape the way people listen. This is obviously the reason most of the people asked didn’t seem to mind if music for the Radio City Holiday Extravaganza was pre-recorded rather than live despite the cries of Local 802. One of the things that recordings have taught us, for better or worse, is that musical experiences tend to last about an hour and, with the decline of having to flip LPs over, have no intermission.

Yes, I know, the next generation will be experiencing music mostly through random shuffle and downloads of individual tracks. Perhaps this will usher in an even more depressing day for folks who are saddened by the sight of people squirming in their seats at concerts. But while we can still get people’s attention for about an hour, let’s maximize it and get rid of the intermissions.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

18 thoughts on “Don’t Stop

  1. brett

    A few years ago, the American music series here opened a wonderful new downtown concert hall in a turn of the century Baptist church, and set most performances to begin at 730 and run 90 minutes without a break. It’s worked wonderfully; old people could be home in bed early, while whippersnappers could go out for a late dinner. Musicians seem to like it, too, particularly jazzers. Ever since, I’ve been calling for the end of intermissions, except where needed for major stage re-sets. Even though I know a lot of the audience, I hate sitting around for 20 minutes just chattering or waiting for the next set.

    Now, for the next step: shouldn’t we put of our misery this musty old tradition of re-setting the stage after every piece in chamber music concerts that have diverse instrumentation? Why is it so bad to have a piano already onstage so that after the flute and harp duo finishes their piece, the pianist and trumpeter can come out and do their thing? Or so the string quartet can easily add a pianist for its piano quintet?

    Last week I attended a potpourri concert that featured a whole bunch of different university groups — choirs, percussion ensemble, various instrumentalists, even a couple of dance settings. I dreaded the breaks I was sure would ensue — but someone had been thinking ahead, and they decided to make all transitions seamless, finding clever ways (using lighting, pre-set instruments, and more) to start one piece within seconds of the end of the previous one.

    Obviously much depends on your stage configuration — does it have wings? curtain? — and personnel, but quick changes sure keep the concert momentum going and make the experience a lot more engaging for the audience.

    OK, if that’s not radical enough: how about squashing this silly tradition of musicians bowing for applause after every piece, trooping offstage, coming back on to take their curtain call, going back off again, then coming back to play the next piece with the same instruments? You never see pop musicians do this — is there a good reason why this kind of interruption should happen after every piece? If they need to get a drink or catch a breath or clear a valve or something, can’t they do it while, say, a group member actually dares to speaks to the audience for a moment about what they’re playing?

    But that’s another rant….

  2. Garth Trinkl

    Should we throw out all Shakespearean plays as well, and advocate that our American theaters only program one-act plays and “performance artists”? I imagine that you also think that Richard Strauss’s “Salome”, “Elecktra”, and “Daphne” are too long for American classical opera audiences?

    Feel free to advocate once a week, hour long outreach concerts, by our American symphony orchestras, but please please allow educated high school students, young adults, and older adults to experience evening-length — with intermission — classical programs of symphonic music, choral music, and opera.

    Imagine an orchestra currently programming the world premiere of an American choral work, and Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana”. Under the intermission-less future you advocate, guess which of the two works is going to be abandonned to fit your hour-long format?

    I spent yesterday morning (without American classical music on public radio due to NPR trying to satisfy the classically illiterate, I-Pod crowd) listening to Szymanowski’s “King Roger”, and remembering last week’s Baltimore Symphony Orchestra superb performance of Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle”. How about a MET Opera production of both of these works together? One is 85 minutes long, and the other is about an hour long? Or is a slightly over 2 and a half hour afternoon (with one intermission) too long for many in the American Music Center insider crowd?

    Or should Tobias Picker’s “An American Tragedy” be performed by the MET over two evenings, given that it’s approximately three hour length (with single intermission) is too much for many in the I-Pod toting American Music Center insider crowd?

    — Garth Trinkl

    Renaissance Research

  3. Garth Trinkl

    j —

    Here is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s program, under James Levine, for the Kennedy Center this coming March (It is currently sold out except for a few, very expensive seats):

    R. Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks

    Peter Lieberson: Neruda Songs

    Elliott Carter: Three Illusions for Orchestra

    Beethoven: Symphony No. 7

    How would you shorten this program into an hour long concert, without intermission?

    Renaissance Research

  4. ian

    I have to say I’m not really on board with the idea of hourlong concerts, and I’m by no means a traditionalist when it comes to these things. Sure, the occasional short concert is all well and good, but it seems to me that when you program an hour’s worth of music you either don’t have a lot of music to program or you’re admitting to the world that no one likes your music enough to put up with more than an hour of it. If the latter’s the case, why have a concert at all? There may be specific scenarios when having a short concert is appropriate or desirable for one reason or another, but you also don’t want to shortchange people who may have spent a fair bit of time and money in order to attend. I mean, in New York, it takes nearly an hour to get anywhere anyway…at least have the concert last longer than the subway ride!

  5. Frank J. Oteri

    Some of the above comments have morphed what I originally wrote far beyond what I actually stated here. In my desire to decrease the number of intermissions at concerts, I am in no way advocating for exclusively shorter programs. I am perfectly fine with sitting in my seat transported by music for 90 minutes to 2 hours or even more if the material being performed warrants it. Why don’t movies have intermissions? How many complaints have you heard that they don’t?

    Many years ago, I sat for over three hours to hear an amazing La Monte Young brass piece that was basically just one chord in an extremely crowded and hot space not usually used for musical performances. When it ended, I wanted more. That’s not the same as a mix and match orchestral program that has an overture and a concerto followed by an obligatory intermission followed by a symphony, none of which are related to one another.

    My point was not that we should cater to people with no attention spans, but that we should do everything we can to enhance people’s attention spans which I think such potpourris rarely do. Intermissions can actually reduce people’s attention spans even further and in many cases are probably not always necessary. In fact, if there are connections to be made between disparate works on the same program, the connections might be better articulated without the intermission.

    BTW, for the record (pun intended), I still do not use an i-Pod as anyone who has read me gush about LPs ought to have figured out by now.

  6. mollys

    The four-hour-long Meredith Monk marathon had only one intermission on offer, and really that was more to reset the stage than cater to the audience, I suspect. Patrons who needed to take a break seemed to have no problem coming and going with minimal disruption during the short breaks between each piece, and most kept their seats the whole time.

    Personally, I like the modern dance arrangement. You see a piece, and if they stage crew needs a bit if extra time, the house lights come up a bit indicating that if you really need to dash out or have a conversation with your date, feel free, but otherwise there’s more to come in just a minute. I can save my meet-and-greeting for after the show just fine, and at certain venues, they even facilitate this with lobby parties that include the artists.

    I think Frank’s point is a good one—experiencing music in a live setting is an amazing thing, but it can take a lot of effort to let go of the people and problems around you and fall completely into the experience. Why interrupt that flow just because of protocol? It’s a question of re-evaluating the trappings, not the art. Our daily lives often involve so many interruptions, doing without them for the length of a concert might seem a relief.

    Oh, and I have an iPod, which I love, but I’ve never felt inclined to use the famous shuffle function.

  7. Garth Trinkl

    “What these two concerts had in common, aside from both having repertoire exclusively from within the past century, was that both lasted around an hour and neither had an intermission. They were all the better because of it and it started to make me think that perhaps the intermission is an unnecessary anachronism”

    — Frank Oteri, Editor, NewMusicBox

    Is this a matter of imprecise writing or imprecise editing?


    j —

    The Philadelphia Orchestra just performed, this past week, Jennifer Higdon’s new Percussion Concerto followed by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica). Neither work is longer than an hour. Which work do you think that ASOL managements, across the country, would have sacrificed to make for an hour – long concert?


    Thank you, Ian, for your interesting comment about commute times and the valuation of musical experiences. My father — who prefers archeology, philosophy, and mathematics to classical music — attended the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra a while back. Kent Nagano was performing Busoni’s Turandot, in a concert version.

    The concert was one hour long and was without intermission. Afterwards, my father said that the concert should have had a second half, and wasn’t, as it was, worth it in terms of the expense and energy he had exerted to attend and experience that hour of music. He said that the neighbors he spoke to afterwards agreed with him.

    Maybe you and Columbia U. business students can do a poll and see whether there is a preference for one-hour long classical orchestral concerts. (Though, the ASOL and NEA have probably already conducted such surveys. You might want to check first.)

    Renaissance Research

  8. Frank J. Oteri

    Admittedly I did write that hearing two hour-long concerts (as opposed to two-hour long concerts) sans intermission inspired me to question the ubiquity of intermissions. But as I and others have already pointed out above, later in the same essay I went on to write that longer work merits longer concerts and that some work does indeed require intermissions. My issue here, as always, is with the status quo.

    Anyone who cares about new music can’t possibly be content with a status quo where new music is entirely absent from a program or is relegated to a brief concert opener followed boilerplate by a well-worn concerto featuring a name-brand soloist, an intermission, and a super famous symphony that everyone can agree is a masterpiece without having to listen. By suggesting an alternative, which was suggested to me by those wonderful programs at the National Symphony I attended (which might not have been to everyone’s taste: which is perhaps the real issue here), I was hoping to start a conversation, and indeed I did.

    That said, whether an orchestra would chose to play either Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra or the Eroica if they could not choose both is indeed an interesting question. Obviously, as an advocate for new American music, I would lobby for the Higdon. It would not always be an easy sell for reasons that go way beyond old vs. new. Beethoven, being familiar, is easier to rehearse with limited rehearsal time. There is no rental fee for Beethoven. In fact, most orchestras already own a set of parts to the Eroica in their permanent libraries. And on and on. But to automatically assume that orchestra management would always choose the Beethoven, I think is a defeatist attitute and one that is not true: the Concerto for Orchestra was a huge hit among orchestra managers attending the 2002 American Symphony Orchestra League conference in Philadelphia. I know. I was there.

    But, before my comments get parsed again and I’m accused of trying to wipe out performances of Beethoven, for the record, I’m a big fan of the Eroica. Both the Eroica or the Higdon could make a rewarding “total” listening experience. Both have for me on recording several times.

  9. Garth Trinkl

    “Yes, I know, the next generation will be experiencing music mostly through random shuffle and downloads of individual tracks. Perhaps this will usher in an even more depressing day for folks who are saddened by the sight of people squirming in their seats at concerts. But while we can still get people’s attention for about an hour, let’s maximize it and get rid of the intermissions.”

    “But to automatically assume that orchestra management would always choose the Beethoven, I think is a defeatist attitude and one that is not true”…

    — Frank Oteri, Editor, NewMusicBox

    I think that it is you who is holding the defeatist attitude; and who is advocating the scaling back of opportunities for the performance of new American orchestral and choral works by American symphonies and choruses. I am not the one who is defeatist!

    In fact, musicologist Charles T. Downey, yesterday at, accused me of being too optimistic about the flexibility of American symphony orchestras to attract new audiences from among 35 to 45 year olds!


    As for your choice of the Higdon over the Beethoven; well, Tim Page, of the Washington Post, is a distinguished advocate for American music, as are you, and he didn’t really care all that much for this Higdon work which he said “felt more like manufactured product than any sort of personal expression.” He also said “knowhow and energy are not the highest artistic values, and I hope for more from Higdon.”

    On the other hand, Tim Page loved the performance of the Beethoven Eroica:

    “A new work with few surprises and a 200-year-old masterpiece with hundreds of them made up the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Monday night program at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, under the direction of Christoph Eschenbach….

    Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) followed intermission and proved once again just how inexhaustible some music is. This symphony has been played almost constantly for two centuries now, and yet it all seemed new on Monday — the still-shocking bray of dissonance in the opening movement, the wrenching and ever-more-affecting convulsions of pain in the “Funeral March,” the bright, gentle scherzo that ushers in a new morning, and the final set of variations, simultaneously grand and comical.”

    So, if polling actually does show, incredibly, that patrons want hour-long concerts without intermission, who do you think that ASOL managements are going to listen to when deciding what to sacrifice for the sake of their dumbed-down rush-hour or rush-matinee concert-formats — you or Tim Page?

    [Might not the Philadelphia’s program have been strengthened by it opening with a performance of either Grawemeyer Prize- winner Gyorgy Kurtag’s “Grabstein fur Stephan” or his “Stele” — each brief masterpiece of which is 12 minutes or less?]

    Renaissance Research

  10. Frank J. Oteri

    No, I don’t think adding Kurtag to the program would have improved the Philadelphia Orchestra’s program even though I’d love to hear more of his music live in this country. (Hopefully being honored with the Grawemeyer will make that a reality.) More than likely, adding a second work that undoubtedly would be as unfamiliar to the players and the audience, most of whom presumably already know and love the Eroica, might have even made a stronger case for the Eroica. It’s not a fair fight.

    Throwing an additional composition onto a program just because there’s some extra time is the worst reason to play a piece of music. The wonderful paradox about music is that music unfolds in time but music is somehow able to suspend time. A minute of a captivating piece does not feel like a minute. And that same minute could feel like 15 minutes in a piece you’re not attuned to. I’ve tried this with a stopwatch a few times.

    Also, I think it’s rather arrogant to state that an hourlong program is a dumbing down. What if that hourlong program consisted of Harrison Birtwistle’s Pulse Shadows which I heard all by itself in an hourlong program given by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center last year. Would you have wanted something else alongside that? I’m glad it was on its own. The emotional trauma that this Holocaust-inspired work unleashed would have been greatly diminished by the inclusion of anything else on the program.

    As for the official critical pronouncement on Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra versus Beethoven’s Eroica. Would a critic nowadays dare to admit not looking the Eroica unless it was some trigger for a snarky polemic? I highly doubt it. Yet another reason I think that “criticism” tells us more about the critic that what is supposedly being criticized.

    Over the weekend I was reading a denunciation of La Fille du Regiment by Berlioz who accused Donizetti of recycling melodies composed for Italian operas in this work for the Paris Opera. Not so, but as someone whose own operas were not being staged in Paris, Berlioz was hardly objective. Truth is, no one is… which is why criticism is not the “word from on high” that so many people seem to think it is.

    And, once again, before the parsers have a field day with my latest comment: I love Berlioz and Donizetti, for whatever that’s worth in this particular discussion…

  11. Garth Trinkl

    “More than likely, adding a second work that undoubtedly would be as unfamiliar to the players and the audience, most of whom presumably already know and love the …”

    Frank Oteri, Editor, NewMusicBox

    Of course, Frank Oteri knows more about classical music than James Levine who has shamefully programmed, in a single concert by the BSO, new works by both Peter Lieberson and Elliott Carter:

    R. Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks

    Peter Lieberson: Neruda Songs

    Elliott Carter: Three Illusions for Orchestra

    Beethoven: Symphony No. 7


    Of course a performance of Birtwistle’s “Pulse Shadows” can stand alone, as can a performance of a Schubert or Schumann or Rorem song cycle.

    But do you expect your prayed-for intermission-less, “around an/about an” hour-long concerts by ASOL members to feature many single works by living composers, especially American living composers?

    I stand by my comment that the Philadelphia Orchestra program would have been improved by the inclusion of an opening masterpiece by Gyorgy Kurtag. The reason for including the Kurtag “Grabstein” or “Stele” would be because these works are classical masterpieces.

    And I stand by my comment that for the AMC to advocate that 90 to 120 minute concerts, by ASOL members, be replaced by intermission-less concerts of approximately 60 minutes is another call for the dumbing down of classical music in America.

    [As for the idiotic comment about this discussion having anything to do with what the NSO recently programmed, at least it wasn’t me who used this partially NEA funded space to comment on how one might have improved upon Tobias Picker’s setting of “An American Tragedy” as an opera.]

    Renaissance Research

  12. Frank J. Oteri

    This is beginning to descend into a personal diatribe here (e.g. the word “idiotic” used above). For the record, personal abuse toward anyone on this forum is not tolerated and will be removed. As it was directed toward me, I have made the perhaps somewhat self-effacing editorial decision to leave it here in order to respond, but this will be my final response to this particular poster.

    Of course I appreciate what James Levine is doing in Boston. To infer that I don’t because I’m suggesting it might make for an interesting alternative to have intermission-less concerts with variable durations is another example of the glib “either you’re for us or against us” paradigm that is the bane of much of talk radio, internet chatrooms (alas I should know better!) and much too much political debate in recent years.

    It is also intellectually dishonest to infer that I was seriously suggesting ways to improve An American Tragedy when I clearly stated in my commentary yesterday that I really liked the work and take issue with people who listen to things through their own critical filters rather than experiencing art on its own terms.

    To call something a “classical masterpiece” is, alas, an opinion. It is an opinion some hold of Kurtag and Birtwistle. It is an opinion others hold of Higdon and others cited above. It is an opinion some hold of all of the above. It is an opinion some hold of none of the above. Indeed, they are opinions. Let’s have more from some other participants here!

  13. Garth Trinkl

    Your mini-criticism of Tobias Picker’s “An American Tragedy” was hardly a stellar example of your “self-effacing” journalistic and editorial style.

    Go ahead and delete my post, and I will request that the Board and Executive Director of AMC consider deleting your criticism of Mr Picker’s new, not yet premiered, MET opera.


    The Philadelphia Orchestra performance, in Washington this past Monday, of Ms Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto and Beethoven #3 sold only 80% capacity, according to presenter WPAS; whereas the upcoming March 2006 performance by the BSO of R. Strauss, Peter Lieberson, Elliott Carter, and Beethoven #7 has already sold out 99%.

    Today, I asked WPAS whether they would consider adding a second performance of the BSO this March, under Levine and featuring Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. They told me that they could not arrange that this season, but that they would consider adding a second BSO performance, at the Kennedy Center, next season.

    Renaissance Research

  14. Frank J. Oteri

    As a courtesy to the readers who are reading this thread, here is the citation from yesterday’s thread:

    If I had written An American Tragedy, I would have let the long trombone sustain at the end of Act Two end the opera rather than follow it with a quick declamatory tonic chord. But, you know what, I didn’t write An American Tragedy; Tobias Picker did. One of the important things that is gained from abandoning a critical stance, whether you’re a composer or not, is to allow yourself to appreciate things you would not want to do yourself.

    I prefaced that comment by saying that I was “very impressed with the opera” which I admitted “against my better judgment” since I mentioned that I did not intend to “review” the performance. Therefore it is more than a tad disingenuous to describe such writing as “criticism” and to do so completely misses the point of what I was writing yesterday. It’s so easy to not embrace something that does not conform to your own viewpoint, but nothing from anyone else ever conforms to one’s own viewpoint 100%. That’s the point. This particular discussion, however, belongs on that page and not on this one and therefore any substantive commentary related to that topic will be moved there otherwise the discussion here will lose its specificity.

    It would be interesting to hear other people’s views here on alternatives to the standard lengths of concerts and various protocols involved with the standard concert-going experience (e.g. intermissions) which started the whole bruhaha here in the first place. The traditional concert format of overture, concerto and symphony I brought up earlier has frequently been a way to keep new music out (but that’s another whole discussion). I’m curious to hear some other perspectives on the pros and cons specifically of intermissions other than the common wisdom that people can’t sit still for more than an hour at a time (which movies prove is not true).

  15. mdwcomposer

    What I am getting from Frank’s article is that format and procedural / packaging alternatives to the way most “live art-music consumption events” are structured should be considered and that those alternatives can increase the enjoyment and success of the event. I agree.

    I have been to concerts with no intermission, with multiple “long intervals” (the set-up time as mentioned above), “standard” symphony concerts (with the usual intermission) and have found satisfaction in all. I have experienced what seemed like odd repertoire combinations on paper that came across to me as engaging throughout (How about the next Berkeley Symphony concert: Bach Brandenburg #3 , Carter Piano Concerto , Varèse Octandre , Stravinsky Firebird Suite ?). How about “odd” times? A Halloween concert that starts at midnight, the music before the Christmas eve church service, which can be a wonderful half-hour concert experience (and you can duck out when the actual service starts).

    If I have been engaged, I suspect it was, in part, that someone at some point gave some thought to the form / wrapper as well as the contents, and how they work together. Some programs benefit from a continuous, uninterrupted sequence of works. Some works benefit from being placed strictly alone, regardless of length. Someone designing a program to be heard at midnight would hopefully make different choices than a similar program that would be performed earlier in the evening. Even a “good” concert can be ruined by a poor ordering of the pieces.

    This isn’t strictly applicable to new music either – I once heard a period orchestra perform all four Bach Suites. The intermission worked for me, as did the fact that they were not simply #1, #2, #3, #4. On the other hand, a program of Reniassance-to-Baroque dance suites and dance-related vocal music is very successful without an interruption. An uninterrupted Messiah or St. John is a very special experience. Some thought about the entire concert experience occurred in all of the above cases.

    But what triggers my strongest reaction is Frank’s comment that

    My issue here, as always, is with the status quo.
    Anyone who cares about new music can’t possibly be content with a status quo . . .

    For me, that includes intermission, length, repertoire and many other things. All need to be continually reexamined [in my opinion].

  16. Frank J. Oteri

    While reading all the various reactions on the web to Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy, I came across an interesting comment made by Robert Levine on the website Classics Today in what was basically a rave review: “…the audience knows when to applaud.”

    It reminded me of all the tirades that people in the classical music community have been making for years about whether or not audiences should be allowed to clap in between the movements of a multi-movement work played on an orchestra concert.

    Last Saturday night, I went down to the Dream House to experience La Monte Young’s Just Charles and Cello in The Romantic Chord in an environment together with Marian Zazeela’s Abstract #1 from Quadrilateral Phase Angle Traversals. For well over three hours with no intermission, cellist Charles Curtis performed La Monte’s latest masterpiece in front of Marian’s remarkable slowly evolving series of projected light symmetries (which convinces me more resolutely than ever before that serialism and minimalism can effectively be combined; but that’s another discussion).

    Before the concert, a sign outside instructed the audience not to applaud so that the music would remain with everyone long after it ended. Remarkably, no one applauded but everyone, myself included, was transformed. But I was also transformed by An American Tragedy—I still can’t get a two-tone recitative declamation from the end of the first act out of my head—and that was a more or less conventional operatic presentation with applause, intermission, etc.

    The reality is that new music demands a willingness to be open to a variety of approaches. These include both creating important new work within a tradition and forging a totally new path.

  17. brett

    Frank never said ALL concerts should be one hour, just that programmers should be flexible enough to allow different lengths, depending on the work, the audience sought, etc. In my town, the 7:30 start and 9 pm finish seems to work well for both older audiences (they can be home earlier) and younger (they can go to a late dinner and maybe hit a club afterwards).

    I recently interviewed the director of a prominent new music and dance festival, and she told me that one attraction of the festival’s flexible-time format was that it attracted artists — including some who are internationally renowned — who had created works that naturally wanted to be an hour or half an hour , and they didn’t feel compelled to pad a work beyond its natural length. The festival might put two half-hour works on the program, or a one-hour piece, or a fairly standard two-hour work or combo of work. The artists like the chance to put shorter works on stage, and the audience likes the variety of being able to choose hour-long or two -hour long performances.

    I’m assuming the vitriol of the response to Frank’s comments comes from the assumption that shorter concerts = “dumbing down,” because his reasonable proposal doesn’t seem to merit such venom. No one wants to dumb down, but it’s fallacious to equate shorter with dumber. Sometimes shorter is just more intense, and some listeners don’t want to dilute a performance’s intensity or sense of completeness by padding with another work. Some of us just don’t want to sit through two hours of orchestral music, especially when half of it or more is tired warhorses.

    Frank’s right: if we want to get new music beyond its small and dwindling core audience, programmers need to try different ways of reaching other potential listeners. Maybe attention spans are shorter now (for some listeners, and even for some composers); should we just ignore that reality in the name of defending the ramparts against the young barbarians? Maybe some of us just don’t always want to hear two or three big works in the same night. Shouldn’t alternatives exist for us?

    A shorter program might also allow for lower ticket prices (the biggest obstacle to new music attendance) and some interesting adjunct programming. For example, the chamber music society of Lincoln Center has been doing some interesting lecture-demos on Shostakovich. What if an ensemble devoted the first hour to such lecture demos (for those who wanted to attend) and then the second to performances of the works themselves? Those with longer attention spans or just deeper interest could come to both segments. I just attended another concert that featured music by Zhou Long and Chen Yi, with the composers present. Their talk after the program was just fascinating and included the erhu player. But I bet a lot more audience members would have stuck around for it if they’d just cut the long intermission and a couple of the shorter pieces.

    I think there is a legitimate fear that shorter programs would result in cutting the new music, but as Frank says, that’s an issue that needs to be addressed separately. I think there’s an equal chance that, with lower ticket prices, appropriate marketing (to more adventurous listeners), and half the time commitment, shorter programs featuring contemporary music might actually attract as many new listeners as they lose old ones.

    Most of all, I think we need to try new things. Maybe some won’t work, just as most new music or art doesn’t work. But it’s better to go down trying new things than just hiding our heads in the sand as the tides of generational change inundate us.


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