January 23, 2021

Don’t go breaking my art: it’s time to axe the mood-ruining, bar-scrambling interval

Covid has forced pianist Stephen Hough to play at different times – without a break. And he’s loved it so much, he doesn’t want to ever go back

When my book Rough Ideas was published last year I, like everyone else on the planet, had no idea how much and how quickly life in 2020 would change with Covid-19. Its chapters about music and composers and practising (and even recording) remain pertinent, but the section entitled Stage, about life on the road, backstage, in airports, in hotels – in short, life as a concert pianist – seems like scenes from another world.

There would be additional chapters if it were to be written today: playing for sparse, distanced audiences whose response to the music is hidden behind masks; regulations for behaviour on- and offstage (“Do not touch the piano except for the keys”; “Do not gather with members of the orchestra”). I’m convinced that in time we will return to a full concert and theatre schedule, but for the moment there are adjustments to be made. And some of these may end up as permanent changes.

One issue I wrote about that seems to have struck a chord with readers was the idea of removing the interval and having shorter concerts, lasting around 60-80 minutes, perhaps at different starting times, and even repeating them on the same night. Since the pandemic struck this shrunken format has quickly become the norm, a neat solution to comply with new health and safety requirements … and I’ve loved it.

Since August, I’ve played hour-long, interval-free concerts with the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Liverpool Philharmonic, the Bournemouth Symphony and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the Proms, and Symphony Hall, Birmingham, not to mention recitals, often repeated to enable more, socially distanced audiences to attend. It felt serious, focused and intense, with plenty of time for variety of repertoire.

And repeating concerts, as we did in Liverpool, is not just a chance for the audience to have a choice of attendance time, it’s an opportunity for the performers to explore works more deeply. So often, relaxing after a performance in the past, I’ve wished I could play it again – either because it didn’t go well and I wanted to correct things, or because it did go well and I wanted to relive things. In Liverpool, Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto at 4pm felt different from the 7.30pm show; the cutting-edge in the afternoon seemed to broaden into a grander conception by the evening. The Emperor was wearing new clothes.

At some point in the early 20th century we settled into a pattern: concerts should start in the early evening and last roughly two hours including a 15 to 20-minute interval in which either to drink a glass of wine or to visit the loo. (A snaking line outside the ladies’ is a casualty of all theatres I’ve attended.) Anything shorter and we invite complaints from the audience; anything longer and we risk complaints, as well as overtime costs, from the backstage staff.

This tradition served us well in many ways, especially when most people’s working hours were the same and music was less easily accessible in recorded formats. In a live orchestral concert we could hear a big symphony, a concerto (and its visiting soloist) and an hors d’oeuvre, often something freshly written by a living composer that was short enough not to scare people away, but long enough to allow for latecomers. But this can’t be the only way to hear live music. And now it isn’t.

There has always been much variety in terms of concerts’ starting times, from rush-hour 6pm to a postprandial 10.30pm, but one thing in common was the interval. In opera or ballet performances this is understandable: sets need to be changed, singers and dancers need to rest, the works being performed are long and have breaks written into them. But who decreed that a concert of orchestral music should last roughly two hours with a gap in the middle in order for us to feel we’re getting our money’s worth?

It might be objected that the interval was a time to socialise. But is this really true? Wasn’t it rather a time to scramble to the bar and at best begin a conversation that has to be cut short as you scramble back to your seat before the second half begins? 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, requiring the engines to be started up all over again. The dressing room is a place to dress and undress, not to sit looking vacantly into the lamp-studded mirror, drumming fingers on a table, trying to stay warm and in the mood, waiting for the public to find their way to their seats, and to settle down again.

There will always be a place for the traditional-length concert but it’s time to embrace different options, too, especially when they’re the only options we have for now, and when we can’t embrace each other. Although the pandemic-era’s reasons for avoiding the drinks queue or exiting the hall after only an hour of music are new, the principle behind the idea remains the same. We can leave behind the Victorian construct of concert attendance as we can leave behind the same era’s horse-drawn carriages.

Stephen Hough’s Rough Ideas (Faber) won the Royal Philharmonic Society award for storytelling. His performance of Mendelssohn’s first piano concerto with CBSO is available on demand from 10 December.