How Stephen Hough would save classical music

How Stephen Hough would save classical music


norman lebrecht

August 20, 2017

The British pianist, a near-neighbour of ours, has been shooting the breeze with Pacific Standard:


There are certain concert organizers who simply think that if you put something on at eight o’clock, people are going to come. We know that isn’t true. I’ve talked about changing the times of concerts—having them earlier, or later. Let’s put together a package with a restaurant so somebody can go to a 6:30 concert that lasts an hour, and then have dinner at a discount. If the commercial and the artistic side would work together, it benefits everyone.

I’ve always been puzzled that we have concert halls that spill out 2,000 people at the end of a concert—but because of the time of the concert, it’s too late to eat. People want to get home! Let’s think this through. …

You have also argued for ending the intermission.

I go to the ballet quite a lot in London. On a triple bill, they will have two 25-minute intervals. I’ve been so frustrated by this. They make money at the bar selling champagne, but it’s frustrating. It’s not long enough to leave the hall and go to a restaurant, and it’s not really good for conversations. You either want to have a proper conversation with someone, or just say hello. It’s too long for a coffee break. If they just ran these things back to back, we could start at 7:30, be out by nine, in time for coffee or dinner. I realize that, in opera, the singers need to rest their voices, but with a lot of concerts, we have intervals simply because it has always been done. There’s no real reason for it.

More here.


  • That’s an absolutely game-changing idea!
    Even better if they would sell white plastic bento box and soft drink in the concert hall so that people can have dinner WHILE enjoying the concert.

    • John says:

      And please KEEP THE MUSIC DOWN so we can enjoy our meal and have a good conversation. Mahler Muzak, you see.

      • Exactly, the music is more often than not too loud and too disturbing. Mahler was a narcissist and not grateful to his donors for their supports.

        • John says:

          Thanks for sharing your insights into Gustav Mahler. Tells me all I need to know about you.

          • But you do need to know more about Gustav Mahler though. Do you know all his women and how laughable and effective he was when he was dealing with them? People at his time didn’t like him as person nor as composer. Henry Krebbiel, the Eduard Hanslick in New York, said Mahler would have been be a genius musician if he had the talent of Dvorak.

            Don’t be a naive blind follower. Mach dir dein eigenes Bild.

        • Father Ted says:

          Worse Mahler was a complete fraud, he converted to being an RC to obtain the post at Hofoper but never went to Confession or Mass and had the cheek to compose a Resurrection symphony madness, he was not a true believer converts can never be trusted. His music is complete kitsch.

    • Buster Gonad says:

      Why not have concerts in pubs like they did in Handel’s time, with busty waitresses serving beer and other tasty edibles. In Dublin we had Esther and Acis & Galathea with smoked Salmon platter washed down with Guinness and Jameson Green spot.

  • David Ward says:

    What Stephen Hough is perhaps forgetting when he comments on intervals in opera and ballet, is that some of us suffer from ‘old man’s bladder.’ I would certainly prefer it if there were three intervals in Otello, as there used to be in my youth, rather than the one which is standard nowadays. I can cope, but I either have to have a gangway seat or be in a box. As for Wagner…

    Also, with stiff knees &c &c &c, I like to stand up and walk gently about from time to time.

    He, and those directors who choose to run things straight through without interval, should at least consider this sort of thing. Not everyone can sit in comfort for a longish period without getting to their feet.

    • Patrick says:

      Here in the US we have something called the “7th inning stretch”, a baseball term. In a longer Symphony it could be placed between the later movements and the audience could sing “Take me out to the concert…”.

    • Cyril Blair says:

      It’s not just “old man bladder.” Sometimes it can be pregnant woman bladder, or woman needing to change a tampon. Or the line to the ladies’ is so long a woman needs 25 minutes to get through it, do her business, wash the hands, and find her seat.

  • Myrtar says:

    And people should be able to have their own drinks and food (popcorn, hot dogs, french fries, burgers etc) during the concert. A Symphony by Mahler takes easily over 1h without interruption, you can get really thirsty. And if it works in the cinema, why not in the concert hall? I think this is a money maker!

    • John says:

      Mahler Burgers. What a concept! Maybe something church-goers (if there are any left) should think about taking up, too.

  • Fritz Curzon says:

    I wouldn’t want to dance a triple bill without rests either- even if I could. But today’s other sadly contra-indicative reason for what seems a sensible approach, is security. Emptying out the hall/theatre, in central London especially, to refill it an hour or more later, carries risks.

  • John says:

    I go to a concert to hear music performed live. It’s an aural (and to some extent, visual) experience. It differs from listening to the same music in my living room inasmuch as it’s being performed live, so it’s a unique, one time experience.

    If necessary, I have a meal BEFORE the concert so that I can devote my entire attention to the music and the performance. I pay for really good seats so I’m in a good position in the hall to experience what is happening on stage.

    Some of the comments here suggest the opposite, that the performance is some kind of intrusion into the humdrum of normal human activities (eating, urinating, etc.), and that if a concert is to be endured, people really aren’t that engaged.

    I live in a city where people don’t seem to need to have dinner or cocktails during a concert, and people with bladder problems seem to know to purchase an aisle seat, so these issues have never presented themselves and I’m able to hear my Beethoven, Mahler and Schubert without the sounds of silverware and slurping present.

    I don’t think of myself as a snob. I sometimes bring food (the not-noisy type) to extra-long Met Live performances in my local movie theater. But I’m there to turn my eyes and ears loose, and those two senses — in my body, anyway — really appreciate not having to compete with extraneous distractions.

    • John Borstlap says:

      All perfect common sense and the healthy voice of normality. Why do people want to disform the concert format to have it adapted to people who don’t understand what a concert is? And when such proposals come from professional performers, one begin to doubt their own understanding of the art form.

      • In, for example Mozart’s time, they didn’t stick to the concert format of your gold standard. Do you doubt their understanding of this art form?

        • John Borstlap says:

          At that time, the concert format had not as yet developed. The fact that the format develoepd at all, was obviousy the result of a necessity felt to be able to perform and experience the music in the best possible circumstances..

          • Then I wonder what make us believe that this development should stop now and the current concert format is the best possible solution we could ever obtain? As you said, the concert format should be adapted to suit the need of the audience in order to give them the best possible listening experience. Whether we like it or not, our society is changing, people want different things now. Would you rather have a diminishing audience and eventually empty concert halls than changing the high culture fundamentalism?

          • John Borstlap says:

            The violin went through various stages of development until something like a perfect form was reached. Creating violins made of plastic, copper, electric violins, or entirely electronic violins played at a keyboard, have not been able to improve upon the final product. When something is around for quite a long time, it should be tested regularly, not according to what ‘the times need’ but according to whether it can still function at best level as it is, and improve on it if necessary, and where this is useless or impossible, leave it alone and keep it as it was. ‘New’ does not automatically mean ‘better’ as with dentistry.

    • Bo says:

      This is the correct answer!

  • Ravi Narasimhan says:

    Food and drink with a half-concert ticket: Modern music lovers go in first while the classical ones eat and socialize. Flip after intermission. People hear music that doesn’t put them off their feed so concessionaire profits and the orchestra’s cut go up. Probably need longer programs which means more opportunities for performers as well.

  • Webster Young says:

    The longer I remain a classical concert goer, the more grateful I am for intervals. They are a valuable means of escape from many things: cramped seating, obnoxious audience neighbors, too much sustained intensity, gratuitous announcements, muscle cramps, bad performances, and bad music.

  • John and Alice says:

    I will never watch Stephen Hough play again.
    We were all having drinks in the intermission, and just as I got my coffee, The ushers started yelling, “Mr Hough wants to begin early. Please go back in”.
    It was also the worst playing I have ever heard ina concert. It screamed, “I just want to go home”. Now I know he just wanted to go out for dinner.
    At $210 for both tickets, I will never return to that series.
    Good luck Mr Hough.
    PS. Concert was also advertised as Liszt Trancedental Etudes in which he played two of them. This is another way to get audience Mr Hough? Lie to them?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Shocking story. There seems to be a pattern there.

    • Nick says:

      I suppose you checked that the ushers were not simply trying to get you back into the venue for the scheduled restart and made up a “reason”? I have come across that quite a few times over the years. And I suppose you checked that the concert promoter had not listed the programme incorrectly? In no way can I believe Stephen Hough would ever press for an intermission to be shortened – ever! To suggest that it would be because he wanted to have dinner is utter nonsense! I know him well enough to know that he would never, ever consider that. And in no way would I ever see him changing a programme that he had agreed contractually with a concert promoter – ever! He is far too sincere and respectful an artist to play such tricks. John and Alice may not have enjoyed the performance – there is no accounting for taste. The rest appears to be sour grapes.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    Concert at 6:30?

    Most working people are just getting home from work and home is way out in the exurbs.

    They’ll never make into the city in time.

    • Bruce says:

      I think the idea behind these 6:30 concerts is to stay in town after work — skipping rush hour — have dinner, then go to the concert and be home before it gets really late. Or, if you get off work on the late side, you can go straight to the concert, then have dinner in town (or go home if you prefer). Either way, since the concert ends at ~8pm, you’re not limited to only late-night choices for food or travel.

  • Nick says:

    For years Stephen Hough has been one of the finest and most thoughtful pianists of our time. He performs regularly all over the world. Over 30 or so years he has witnessed the decline of concert-going and the ageing of the audience in much of the western world and the rise in concert-going and the much younger audiences in the East. More than any commentator whose roots remain firmly in one place, he is better qualified to make suggestions to ensure the concert-going experience does not meet the fate of an increasing number of orchestras in the west.

    The flippant responses of many posters above are insulting to such an artist – and downright stupid! I trust I never have to sit next to John when he is munching his take-in food and visually distracting those around him trying to concentrate on an opera performance in a move theater without “having to compete with extraneous distractions.”

  • David Ward says:

    Perhaps what we really need is a variety of start times, early (18.30), standard (19.30 or 20.00) and even some late night starts. We might also have different length concerts, some short (one hour maximum), some medium (up to two hours including a 15–20 minute interval) and a few mammoth concerts, perhaps with two intervals. Something the same, as far as practical, might be tried in the opera house. Wozzeck or the Dutchman straight through without interval can indeed be compelling, but should that be the only way of doing these pieces? For reasons already explained, some of us rather like to have intervals.

    Here in rural northern Scotland, our occasional classical concerts begin at 19.30, as most of our audience members like to eat before the performance (and anyway, local eateries stop serving food at 20.00). London hours are rather different.

    When I was 17 or thereby I was taken to a performance of Oedipus Rex conducted by Stravinsky himself and with Cocteau speaking the narrations. This performance started at 23.00, but was sold out despite the lack of late public transport in those days (late 1950s).

    As well as having a range of start times, different concert and interval lengths and so on, perhaps we might also try varied styles of presentation: ‘traditional’ with the usual fairly strict rules of behaviour from audience and performers, but also some considerably less formal. Speaking casually to people in public bars and so on, I’ve found surprisingly often that it is the perceived formality and unfamiliar code of behaviour that has discouraged people from trying a classical concert.

  • Una Barry says:

    Well spoken, David. This is happening with Opera North because like many I have often had to leave before the end and create a disturbance. ENO have had some of their performances at 6.30pm, and not the long ones.

    I can vouch for Stephen Hough’s integrity as a person. I have known him for about 30 years, and anything he does is done with honesty and a frightening level of commitment. He would not have wanted to start a concert earlier just because he wanted to eat, and most certainly would not have said he play all those Liszt studies and only play two. That would have been marketing, so he doesn’t deserve any character assassination. You may not like him, nor his music or what he has to say, but dishonest and a liar he moat certainly is not.

  • Jane says:

    The LSO have a series of 6.30pm Barbican concerts in their forthcoming Autumn season. Including a Rattle one! (Should please all sorts.) As for Stephen Hough, he’s been around long enough and and knows what he’s talking about regarding the concert going public. Can’t imagine him curtailing a concert in order to eat. He’s too professional.

  • Edgar says:

    Steven’s suggestions make a lot of sense. I suspect, though, that changing things around will encounter resistance from certain unions unless they can be guided to see the light as well. As for “old man’s bladder”: I took a cue from an interview given by Philippe Jordan to Mr. Brug, music critic at Germany’s “Die Welt”, in, if memory serves me well , 2011 or 2012: be careful with liquid intake before the performance, because, as a musician, you cannot simply leave the stage to go to the loo. I apply this rule to myself as a concert goer, and am delighted to report its effectiveness. I no longer am trapped in the stampede toward the restroom and back into the hall, and neither am I trapped in the endless cues waiting for a libation of some kind (including the drinking fountains). That said, my friends and I have now subscribed to the Friday afternoon concerts at Symphony Hall, beginning at 1:30 pm, allowing for a relaxed ambulation afterward to a nice place for an unhurried drink and an equally unhurried, lovely early dinner with ample time for conversation, followed by the, again unhurried, journey home. Why not, for example, one hour lunch concerts at which you bring your own brown bag? Seating must be updated in most halls, as humanity has grown in length and certainly girth: an inch or two higher and wider, and more space between rows (knees!). When intelligently done, this can be accomplished without adverse effects to acoustics (case in point: Amsterdam Concertgebouw). The current ways in which things are done are not edicts carved in stone. More creative imagination, please. Enjoy the music.

    • John Borstlap says:

      In the Amsterdam concertgebouw, refurbishments have not always been entirely successful. In 2015, two rather heavy ladies got stuck in their seats and had to stay there through the night until the firebrigade could rescue them the next morning.

  • boringfileclerk says:

    I advocate that all concerts be clothing optional.

  • Pretty young ladies should get free entrance. Old men should paid double price.

  • Nick says:

    The comments by David Walker and Edgar taken along with those of Stephen Hough make much sense. There seems to be a view expressed or implied by several comments above that the concert format should be more or less fixed in stone. Why? 100 years ago it was traditional for concerts to be considerably longer than nowadays. In 1906 Hans Richter conducted a concert with the LSO consisting of –

    Wagner: Prelude to Die Meistersinger
    Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1
    Strauss: Don Juan
    Beethoven: Symphony No. 6

    That would never be programmed now because it does not fit the programme mould that has evolved over the years. The upper class Edwardian generation had little to occupy themselves in the evenings and could easily spend more of their time in the concert hall.

    Thankfully, classical music has massively broadened its base since then – although concert audiences in many parts of the world do not adequately reflect that. What it is vital to understand is that the world itself has totally changed since those days. Most of us work much harder and for much longer hours than the Edwardian elite. Most of us can not afford to live in the centre of towns and cities. We have to commute in from the suburbs – sometimes for more than an hour.

    The opportunities for leisure activities are now vastly expanded for all generations – and further expansion is no doubt on the way. Orchestras and concerts have zero choice – they have to compete for a limited amount of the public’s time. Much is being done in developing an interest in classical music but the results are not being reflected in in most concert attendances. By sticking rigidly to a concert model that is failing in some parts of the world, orchestra and concert managements are merely continuing down a rocky road that is likely to end in yet more bankruptcies and failings.

    Those who advocate no change fail to recognise that many orchestras in many countries do experiment with different formats to meet the needs of different audiences. Some work; some are less successful. That is the nature of experimentation. No one, let alone Stephen Hough, is advocating the total abandonment of what has come to be regarded as the traditional concert model, merely the adoption of a few different occasional experiments.

    Returning to the matter of the longer programming, a year ago I was at a traditional all-Bach recital given by Sir Andras Schiff in the National Concert Hall in Taipei. That programme ended with the Goldberg Variations. At its conclusion, the packed audience of 2,100 which I estimated to have an average age of not more than 40 went wild in their applause and “Bravos”. Schiff then launched into no less than four encores, one being a compete Beethoven sonata. After two and a half hours, he had to be restrained by the promoter from the audience’ desire for a fifth encore as the hire period for the venue was in danger of going into overtime. Seated in the large stalls area, I noticed less than a couple of dozen people leaving prior to the very last note. So in some places, there could be an experiment with a few longer programmes, in the same way as shorter programmes starting at different times should be encouraged. The important issue is that more people must somehow be encouraged into our concert halls.

  • Nick says:

    Apologies to David Ward for writing Walker instead of Ward.

  • David Nice says:

    Fine if it’s just a suggestion for occasional alternatives. I have problems with anything prescriptive here. Horses for courses.