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.