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Ditching the Intermission?

In a recent article at radiotimes.com, British pianist Stephen Hough addressed the issue of shrinking and ageing classical music audiences. Admitting that it’s a complicated issue, and acknowledging that many ideas have been floated – better education, more creative repertoire, lower pricing etc – he went on to focus on one of the more practical aspects of the subject: the intermission.

On tour, Hough has noticed that the default starting time for concerts can be very different, depending on which country you are in. But one common thing is the 20-minute intermission: “Who decided that a concert should last roughly two hours with a gap in the middle so we feel we’re getting our money’s worth?” During one of his recent performances, slightly shorter than average and without the usual loo break, Hough felt that the concert hall was charged with a special energy:

“When you play for an appreciative, concentrating audience, there can be a cumulative emotional effect in the hall as you all enter the powerful world of a composer’s mind and heart. An interval’s descent to chit-chat can bring everyone down to earth with a bump and then require the engines to be started up all over again.”

The suggestion that we should consider removing the intermission has sparked a lively discussion. Some have been slightly alarmed by the fact that a person like Hough would want classical concerts to be shorter. Others, like the “Cross-Eyed Pianist” Frances Wilson have pointed out that these ideas are hardly new – tradition is already changing, and there is a lot of experimenting going on, “from rush-hour concerts at 6.30pm to Wigmore Lates, 45-minute lunchtime concerts or lecture-recitals.”

Another thoughtful response came from blogger Andrew Eales (Pianodao), who noted an apparent contradiction in Hough’s article: “On the one hand he seems to rail against the established norm of the 7.30pm concert, while on the other hand praising the success of Proms concerts which follow that pattern to a tee.” Eales went on to suggest that real challenge “is not to offer a novel concert schedule, but to help generate a lasting enthusiasm for the music we love”.

What are your thoughts? Are concerts without intermission better, or could the break in the middle be more important than we think? Would more or less people find their way to concert halls if we ditched the intermission?

Please post your comments below and cast your vote in the poll!

Which type of piano recital do you prefer?

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/david

  1. Timotheus Says:

    It depends on the audience, the venue, the program, and the pianist. I would assume that most recital attendees enjoy classical piano music, but are not looking for bleeding edge nouveau, or shamanistic 140-minute Medtner fantasies. They are like you, and they like different things: A brilliant and bracing beginning 15-20 minutes, followed by some interactivity, or a special remembrance piece or personal arrangement you would like to share along with a brief description of its importance to you, and 15-20 minutes is again fulfilled. Give the audience breaks of 10 minutes at those two points, and then come back and give ’em the old razzle dazzle however you like, or, as Ethel Merman sang “whatever the critics will allow.” People generally need to puff on a fag, empty their bladders, and recalibrate their bodies for more sitting. The geantes can have it however they choose, and usually maintain uniformity, one reason they remain les geantes.

  2. R Jamie McDermott NZ. Says:

    Another thought. All concerts are special to me. They are a precious time out and away from the demands and turmoil of a very busy life. I savour the thought of an upcoming concert, there is a sense of anticipation and expectation that is delicious, I am incredibly choosy about the company and who I might invite to accompany me to the auditorium. It is an event. I keep a few special sets of clothes, evening wear, smart casual, tuxedos and so forth just for attending concerts and theatre. I have had evenings in which I have been as close to paradise as is possible in this mortal realm. It is not something that I make room for in my life, it is not something to fit in like a game of rugby. Each concert is a unique event, a construction in sound that ceases as soon as it is completed but the memory of a truly remarkable event stays with you forever. It is not to be rushed, it needs to breathe and have a life of its own even if it is for just a few short hours. How many of those do we truly get in this life. Everything else can wait. If it is urgent then have a matinee concert but leave those wonderful, formal, uplifting,spiritual events for us as they are. Please.

  3. John J Conlon Says:

    I take pride in abundance of the best repertoire by chopin prokofiev, rachmaninov, brahms, and the classics inn every format and texture Thanks JOhn J conlon

  4. GRAHAM WADE Says:

    Stephen Hough mentions the shrinking and ageing audiences…Does this mean the people concerned are both shrinking and ageing, (which may well be true of some of us)? However, on a serious note, let us have our full 45 minutes each way football matches, with extra time occasionally in case of a draw, and the same for concerts…We want our minds, however old we are, to expand not to shrink (whatever our bodies do!),,,Dumbing down doesn’t work…Piano concerts need substance and stamina, as well as beauty, elegance, and virtuosity…best wishes, Graham Wade

  5. CHRIST VAN LEEST Says:

    I don’t think you get more or less people without or with an intermission. With an intermission you have a better experience.
    You have the time to relax and reflect.

  6. Yvonne Says:

    Those suggesting that shorter concerts will somehow reduce costs have perhaps never put on professional concerts. Most venues would be hired for the evening. Regardless of whether your 7pm concert finishes at 8pm, 8:30pm or 9:00pm, the venue’s overheads and staffing costs will be much the same. The venue will unlikely be able book in some other short concert to follow at 9 or 9:30, so they won’t be able to amortise costs and pass savings onto the first concert presenter. In fact, it may “cost” the venue more to be hired for a short/interval-free concert if it means food and drink sales decrease.
    Then there is the matter of artists. Concert artists are paid per concert and I’ve yet to experience a fee negotiation that has hinged on duration of performance. Artists aren’t paid more for longer vs shorter concertos or because they’ve programmed 90 minutes of music instead of 70. Doesn’t work that way. And in the case of orchestral musicians you’re usually looking at performance calls (or services) with a minimum duration. A shorter program might be able to prepared on slightly less rehearsal time so there’s a potential saving there but the actual concert will be what it is: a performance call.

  7. Ron Says:

    I prefer an intermission when the program is lengthy. As one gets older, the need for a restroom break is more necessary.
    Even when performing, which I do, the intermission not only allows for the call of nature but is an opportunity for a re-centering of the mind and focus on providing the best artful interpretation possible.

  8. margaret Says:

    This surely is not an either or question. There are lots of options, based on the performer and the target audience.
    Having said this I think that two hour content is too long.
    Two forty five minute halves with 10 minutes for a stretch could be fine. Content should contain audience pleasing material with maybe one heavy work. I think classical performers can be out of touch with what an audience needs and loves.
    both the audience and the performer need to feel satisfied and compromise is good.
    Some concerts that have worked for me.(in the audience)
    Have a guest instrumentalist or vocalist.
    Have a theme or story.
    Choose a composer(and friends) and have a commentary. Etc. etc.
    Good Luck.

  9. Dorothy Says:

    As an accompanist for an all mail choir – I am pleased to have 10-15min.interval for a mouthful of water and a ‘pit stop’. The choir also have time for a drink etc. 15mins. max for an interval!.
    Even when I attend a concert as a patron, I am happy for a 15min. break.

  10. Sharon Boser Says:

    I have always enjoyed the entire experience of attending a concert..including intermission. I feel that intermission provides an opportunity to freshen up, grab a drink and socialize a bit besides being able to look forward to a second half. After all, a concert is a nice evening out…not meant to be rushed in my opinion. I would think that the performer would appreciate an intermission as well.

  11. Anthony Carrelli Says:

    I believe that concerts should be 1.5 hours starting at 7:30 with no intermission with a reception for the performers lasting a reasonable time say 30 to 60 minutes at the performer’s discretion with beverages of all types leaving it up to everyone’s individual discretion.

  12. Andrew Strong Says:

    Concerts should be as long as required to play the repertoire. The complete Bach WTC 48 could be 6 hours, Alkan’s Concerto for solo piano about 1 hour. People should come and go as they please (not during pieces of course), and socialize with the performers, eat and drink in a salon-like or club atmosphere.

  13. Lisa Lewis Says:

    I think that for young people and teenagers, being introduced to concerts, more than 70-80 minutes, 90 minutes at the most, can be off-putting. Going to hear a concerto, symphony, or other work with which they were already familiar would be enjoyable and would encourage them to return but sitting through a long concert when they have homework to do and school the next day could deter them from going again. I often find that I really enjoy the first half of a concert and during the interval I feel that my enjoyment would almost be spoilt by the second half of the concert and that actually I have had enough. If the second half contains a work which I really love this doesn’t apply of course. When one has had a busy day at work a two hour concert is often just too long.

  14. Jill L Says:

    I heard Ivo Pogorelich play for just over an hour at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford two years ago, and it was the most intense and spellbinding experience, despite the seats being so uncomfortable. The first and only interval-less evening concert for me, though that is usually the format for lunch time recitals. I vote for more! My concentration fades after that. However, it would not suit every type of work, really only solo and chamber music, and intervals are fine for big orchestral and choral works.

  15. Tim Stuart Says:

    Classical piano recitals are really a niche of a niche. Only pianists of the stature of Stephen Hough can generate sufficient excitement to engage and delight a dedicated audience for a full evening, and even his solo piano recitals can sometimes offer more of a ‘deep’ experience which benefits from undisturbed concentration. Other ‘serious’ musical events – concertos, orchestral/choral concerts & opera – have a wider conosseurship and benefit from elements of the spectacle, with opportunities for a chat, and enjoyment of the whole evening’s theatrical experience, no matter that some of these elements are familiar from ‘low brow’ events. I’d generally go for the interval – even if only for the opportunity of an interval chat.

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