Bet You Can’t Hear Just One

Here’s a deceptively simple question for you: What’s the right length for a concert? Rather than approach the question through the program—that is, by hanging it on the dimensions of the pieces and working inductively based on some aesthetic criteria to figure out the most satisfying timing—I want to pose it in terms of time-economy: How much time do you have in the evenings, once transportation time is accounted for? How much is that time worth to you, and at what point does its “expense” outweigh the benefit, however you appraise it, of hearing music played?

I ask because it struck me not long ago that the concerts I’ve enjoyed most in the last few months have been under an hour in length. Naturally such concerts can’t include pieces more than an hour long, which excludes quite a few significant works; on the other hand, I’ve never heard anyone complain about the format (although high ticket prices might raise some hackles as the time/money expenditure ratio is perturbed). Functionally, the appeal of short concerts seems to be that listeners can go do stuff afterwards, but there’s also a succinctness that an artfully programmed short concert can enjoy, encouraging a kind of concentration that longer concerts are likelier to strain. The danger that a short concert seems insubstantial or lightweight looms, of course, but—just as with a short piece of music—careful gem-cutting goes a long way toward forestalling this disappointment.

To put it another way, a 90- or 120-minute (or longer) concert is akin, in terms of time expenditure, to a feature-length film; a shorter concert is more like a 47-minute television show. Perhaps shorter concerts might become more popular if organizers conceived of them like serialized television programs rather than like movies: They’re under an hour long, you still have most of your night left, and—most importantly—you don’t just stop at one. A concert is at once self-contained and part of an arc, perhaps a season long or perhaps the whole length of an ensemble’s career. I suspect (although of course I have no market data to support this speculation) that a series of shorter concerts might make for a more sustainable programming practice than a small number of two-hour concerts.

7 thoughts on “Bet You Can’t Hear Just One

  1. jimaltieri

    The Italian/Jewish grandma approach
    As my friend Steve Schneider said, “Always leave them wanting less.”

    Reply
  2. Alexandra Gardner

    YES
    Oh yes, I am a huge fan of the 60-minute-ish, intermissionless concert. Leaving a concert feeling satisfied, rather than overstuffed, and maybe wishing there had been just a little more, rather than internally wishing the music would stop (not that this is always the case with longer concerts by any means, but it certainly happens!), is so lovely! Saving longer concerts for longer works seems a good idea, so that audiences know what they are getting into.

    Reply
  3. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    It depends on where you are. Up here in Vermont, a 60-minute concert during concert season (which often involves driving that long each way through snow) means the audience leaves feeling cheated. You should have heard the uproar when Philip Glass decided to perform a shorter concert in Burlington not long ago. He was roundly dissed (for that and his you-rubes-suck attitude).

    I’ve been producer for our Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble concerts the past two seasons. Last season we did as Kalvos & Damian radio shows which, because of talk & interviews between compositions, made for happy audiences. This year we did three out of four intermissionless concerts. These were also successful because of the stage work and dovetailing of pieces, poetry (in one concert) and composer comments (after each piece). They did feel uncomfortable about the lack of a program during the first concert in the series, and they left the shortest of the concerts (about an hour) thinking more was coming.

    (The shortest concert next season is my opera, at 65 minutes.)

    Dennis

    Reply
  4. RustyBanks

    I haven’t done any focus groups on it, but speaking anecdotally I can say that I’ve never heard anyone say “That was a great concert, I just wish it had been longer.” I’d say at least 50 min and no more than 90. It also depends on the ‘weight’ of the program. A concert of Carter, Berio, Boulez, etc, as much as I like the stuff, takes more energy to listen to in an engaged way than a concert of Reich, Adams, Glass (for me anyways).

    Of course, this all changes if there are theatrical elements (opera, visuals, dance) to help focus.

    And like Dennis says above, every locale has it’s expectations and tolerances.

    Reply
  5. ndemland

    As a very smart music ed prof. of mine once said re: programming, “the heart can only appreciate what the heiny can handle.”

    Reply
  6. mclaren

    …Inasmuch as it depends entirely on the pieces being played.

    For a concert of Morton Feldman’s second string quartet, the proper length is clearly six hours.

    For a concert of Bach clavichord pieces, 45 minutes may be too long.

    A concert of Conlon Nancarrow’s music lasting more than 25 minutes would probably be too much to take.

    Reply

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