Stephen Hough is rightly fêted not only as one of our greatest classical concert artists, but as an erudite and thoughtful writer. So it is no surprise that his recent piece “No more loo breaks” (published in the Radio Times, 20-26 August 2016 edition, no full online version) has attracted a lot of attention in the media and provoked plenty of debate online.
The reporting and discussion of his article has focussed on just the headline point from what is in any case a fairly short comment piece.
Reading his comments in their intended context clarifies the questions to be addressed, and Hough is to be applauded for setting a positive and stimulating debate in motion.
“A Proms pianist says …”
Stephen Hough is due to perform Rachmaninov’s popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in a BBC Prom Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London on Tuesday 23 August, 7.30pm. His “Viewpoint” column for the Radio Times begins with a tribute to the popularity of the Proms:
“The BBC Proms season is in full swing. By the time is has finished, London’s vast, 6,000-capacity Royal Albert Hall will have hosted 75 concerts over eight weeks, and most of these will be packed to the rafters or completely sold out.”
But he goes on to say:
“Sadly, this is not the norm for classical music concerts. There are exceptions, but the general trend across the world is for audiences to be shrinking and ageing…”
At this point, I hoped Hough might assess the lessons to be learnt from the extraordinary success of the Proms concerts and applied elsewhere. Instead he takes a different, rather more surprising track…
So many ways to crack a nut…
Observing the need to encourage people to discover the “treasure” that is classical music, Hough notes:
“Many ideas have been floated – better education, more creative repertoire, lower pricing, discouraging elitism…
But what about the most practical aspects – the time a concert begins and how long it lasts?”
He goes on to venture that concert organisers and performers need to be more flexible in their approach to scheduling, including offering shorter concerts (he suggests 70-80 minutes) without an interval. Hough points out that among other benefits, this might enable concert halls to schedule two performances on the same evening, for example at 6.30 and 9.00, even increasing their income from their in-house restaurants.
It is these final points which have predominantly been reported and discussed, somewhat giving the impression that Hough is offering his ideas as a decisive solution to the problem of declining audiences, when in context he is helpfully adding them to a menu of possible approaches.
Before going on, let’s recap his list to avoid any misunderstanding:
- Better education
- More creative repertoire
- Lower pricing
- Discouraging elitism
In consideration of the last of these, Hough suggests relaxing the dress code of performers.
Now I can’t be the only music-lover to recoil at the thought of the Vienna Philharmonic turning out for their famous New Year’s Day concert in T-shirts and jeans. There are traditions around classical performing that are worth preserving. But Hough is making a valuable suggestion, and there are undoubtedly many contexts in which dress code could be revisited without it being to the detriment of our overall culture.
What’s new under the sun?
I particularly enjoyed reading writer and pianist Frances Wilson’s thoughtful blog post in response to Stephen Hough’s article. She notes the popularity of lunch-time and rush-hour concerts in London and elsewhere, and even mentions that 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.”
Hmm. Moving on…
Stephen Hough himself likewise acknowledges that in many places concert start times vary, mentioning in particular that in Spain and Italy concerts can start at 9.00pm, while the St Louis Symphony has 10.30am concerts, and the Atlanta Symphony like a 6.00pm start. He notes that Vladimir Horowitz in later life would only play at 4.00pm.
But in spite of this, Hough still asserts:
“At some point in the early 20th century we settled into a pattern: concerts should start early evening and last roughly two hours with a liquid interval, either to drink a glass of wine or visit the ladies/gents.”
And rather than labouring tired clichés about short attention spans, Hough underlines his case for change with this important observation about the shared musical engagement of performer and listener:
“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.”
Stephen Hough certainly makes a good point. As with any human endeavour, “sacred cows” can so quickly become “a thing” if we let them. Have we inadvertently lost the plot?
In Beethoven’s day, concerts might last 3 hours or more – but the audience would chat all the way through, and people might wander in an out at will. Traditions change, some for the better, some not so much.
I would argue that each generation needs to find its own ways to present, understand and enjoy artworks and creative endeavours.
At the same time, reading Stephen Hough’s piece in full, I am struck by an apparent contradiction. 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 in so many cases follow that pattern to a tee.
“Bums on Pews”
As a young man I was a rather fervent churchgoer. And I endured many meetings in which church leaders and members would discuss whether altering the Sunday Service start time from 10.30am to 11.00am would encourage more families through the doors.
The reality always proved to be that it made little difference, because for the most part the Service itself was geared towards the committed believers who already attended, while remaining surreal and incomprehensible to the non-believers who didn’t.
The solution for the Church which wants to grow is to “evangelise”: to leave the pews behind, go out into the world and win over new converts. And in the same way it seems to me that the real challenge facing classical musicians in the 21st Century is not to offer a novel concert schedule, but to help generate a lasting enthusiasm for the music we love.
When it comes to generating enthusiasm for classical music (and any other genre for that matter) the responsibility truly lies with those who perform and teach it.
Here’s four suggestions of my own for ways in which classical performers and teachers can help to generate more enthusiasm for live classical concerts:
- Performers (amateur and professional) can seek out and make the most of every opportunity to perform in schools, prisons, hospitals, restaurants, weddings, town squares, street pianos, hotel foyers, open air festivals, and anywhere else that they are welcome.
- Schools teachers can invite performing musicians to play in school as often as possible, incubating an enthusiasm for live music (across genres, and including classical)
- Private instrumental teachers can encourage all their students to attend at least one concert every six months: for example, by seeking out a suitable local concert and actively promoting it (as well as showing up themselves and engaging with their students)
- Private instrumental teachers can also organise concerts for their students, perform themselves, and invite other performers to take part as appropriate
These are all fairly simple ideas, and of course there are a multitude of other ways in which as music professionals we can devote our lives to generating enthusiasm for our art. Most of us are already actively engaged in such activities, but let’s commit to redoubling our efforts.
I have every belief in the power of good music to transform people’s lives, once we get them along to concerts. But it is down to each of us to help our families, friends, coworkers, neighbours and students make their way across the threshold.
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