Set free?

A couple of evenings before writing this, I had the privilege of attending the first art song recital with a live audience at London’s Wigmore Hall since it re-opened to socially-distanced audiences in line with the UK’s current ‘roadmap’ for ending lockdown.

The concert was an all-Schubert progamme, performed by soprano Carolyn Sampson and pianist Joseph Middleton… So anyone who knows me – or my writing – will instantly grasp how excited I would be under normal circumstances, let alone these highly significant ones.

It was every bit as special as one could have hoped. Titled ‘Elysium’ and themed around the afterlife, the recital could be understood as a sensitive reflection of the devastation of the past year, to lives and livelihoods. The duo did not shy away from stately, spectral melancholy: a gossamer-delicate ‘Nacht und Traüme’, a boldly reserved, gentle ‘Am Tage aller Seelen’, and Sampson in such affecting dynamic control in ‘Du bist die Ruh’ I almost caught my breath.

But this was balanced perfectly by the duo’s obvious delight in being back in front of an actual audience, the energy propelling a more robust selection like ‘Der Musensohn’ into a joyous showstopper. Overall, they created an atmosphere of beauty, grace and wonder throughout.

Joseph Middleton & Carolyn Sampson (photo by Robert Piwko)


And, placing my emotional response to one side for the moment, I linger on that word ‘throughout’. The mood was genuinely sustained, unbroken: there was no interval. This has become a hallmark of the ‘COVID concert’. Venues able to stage performances in various versions of lockdown have also had to close their bars and restaurants, manage use of the toilets, tighten entry procedures, minimise audience groups mixing and so on, leading to a more compact format for the actual performance.

Classical audiences, of course, have encountered this ‘no interval’ idea before: one-act operas being obvious examples. Wagner expects us to get through the 2 hours 45 minutes of ‘Das Rheingold’ without a thirst-quencher or comfort break. And in art song, there is the convention against splitting up even the longer song-cycles, so Schubert’s ‘Die schöne Müllerin’ and ‘Winterreise’, for example, are usually given as complete 70-75 minute ‘units’. (It’s interesting how firmly these ideas take hold – we know, for example, that ‘Winterreise’ was written in two distinct halves, but I have never come across a two-part performance.)

More widely, venues like the Wigmore Hall, resting on a tradition of daytime performance, have staged shorter, interval free concerts for years, usually timed for lunch-hours, or on Sunday mornings – while the Proms does so late at night. But there’s always the implication, rightly or wrongly, that a ‘proper’ evening concert is not grand enough without an interval.

COVID, however, has given the format a wider currency than before. Pianist and polymath Stephen Hough wrote in the Guardian last year about not only the focused intensity of the experience, but also the flexibility a shorter, sharper concert allows – for example, repeating it so you can please a late-afternoon and late-evening crowd… and more or less solving in a stroke the pragmatic ‘when do I need to leave work?’ / ‘when shall we eat?’ stresses of the modern concertgoer.

Sir Andras Schiff (photo by Nadia Romanini)

And only a couple of days ago, in a fascinating interview with Jessica Duchen for the Jewish Chronicle, Sir Andras Schiff aired very similar views, even going further. As well as losing the interval, he feels that there’s no need to announce the programme in advance.

“I would like to bring back an element of surprise and spontaneity… Sometimes it is good if maybe the person who is playing announces the pieces and tells the audience something about the music… there is not a wall between us.”

Allowing for the fact that a lot of classical performers are quite happy to talk the audience, for all I know this is a relatively new thing for Schiff. (I confess that the only time I’ve seen him live, the mood was a little austere.) But programming in secrecy and letting your audience discover your set on arrival would be quite a radical step… unless you’ve been to any rock gig, ever.


I think the pop/rock and classical ‘industries’ have much to teach each other, even if it happens by a kind of accidental osmosis.

For those of you that remember the ‘megastore’ days when you could go into a record shop the size of a department store, you might recall that the tribes were literally kept apart – with classical (and sometimes jazz) CDs in a partitioned-off glass enclosure so neither audience had to hear ‘that dreadful noise’ while browsing.

Sometimes I worry things will fundamentally always be this way. Music on TV is now too sparse and over-categorised for it to be an efficient way to ‘discover’ things accidentally. Algorithms and playlists form themselves around your existing taste: to seek new things, you must decide to be a person who actively goes looking. The Proms issued their infamous recruitment ad that, essentially, pretended the festival wasn’t about classical music. I find myself lamenting that the gap between a kid who listens to nothing but grime and a septuagenarian who rarely bothers with anything post-1500 has never seemed wider.

But those are my dark days. More often, I tell myself that rock and classical can travel along similar roads – just not always in the same direction. For example, we know that the classical world is seeking younger audiences in the face of ruthless cuts to music and its appreciation in schools, and the droning charges of elitism that surface from time to time.

Over the last few decades, however, rock stars have been getting old for the first time, and so have their audiences. With downloads and later streaming bringing the music business to its knees (whatever the genre, and even without the horrendous impact of COVID), live performance is the chief source of income. And if you’re a classical connoisseur, you might identify with some of the ways the rock industry has sought to keep its live audiences.

When I was a kid, there would only be three useful pieces of information on your gig ticket: who you were seeing, where, and the time the front door of said venue would open. Once inside, it could be anyone’s guess when the band would come on – or how many support acts would appear – because your money was desperately wanted at the bar or merchandise stand for a good hour or more first. And, often, you would be standing that whole time: no seats. Then the band played exactly what they felt like playing, at that moment. You could be reasonably sure you’d hear some hits and one or two of your personal favourites, but the thrill of wondering what the next song would be, and the eruption of the audience into euphoria when it was a total anthem, was all part of the ride.

I loved gigs like this. But perhaps the time comes to us all when one mysteriously transforms from “No! I can’t tell you when I’ll be home!” to “I might need to skip the encore if I want to make the 10:57”. Thanks to we silver crowd-surfers, venues generally now offer up stage times, including the rather rock ‘n’ roll-sounding ‘curfew’. And now dedicated album tours abound – the more nostalgic the better, and usually in seated venues – where you’re told that (using as an example of one of the best concerts I have ever seen) Peter Gabriel will play ‘So’ from first note to last, alongside other hits and sundry delights.

(Mind you, even then Peter Gabriel looked anxious that
you’d be able to get the last train home.)

In other words, rock gigs aiming for the widest possible spectrum of punters are taking on the shape of classical concerts. This is when we start, this is what we’ll play and this is when we’ll finish. It seems to work like a charm, as long as there isn’t a concurrent pandemic.


Could it follow, then, that classical should ‘behave’ a little more like rock to seek a younger crowd? And it goes without saying that I don’t mean audiences should talk whenever they like, get up and head for the bar unannounced mid-sonata or start headbanging down the front. It’s more to do with how to put the work across, and the environment you create for the audience.

Take the Proms, which accommodates a large standing audience (on very cheap tickets), at every concert at the Royal Albert Hall. This has been an indestructible model for so long that the ‘Prommers’ have themselves evolved their own traditions, which raises separate, interesting ideas about rock versus classical ‘protocol’.

But I remain convinced that more and more listeners from other genres will discover classical music through artists, and the way they present their repertoire. Sampson and Middleton played an online concert at Wigmore during the lockdown, primarily in support of their most recent R & C Schumann release, ‘Album für die Frau’ (which I wrote about here). Experts in establishing connections and coherence in all their recitals, they fashioned a Spring theme which brought in selections not only from the new record, but also from three of their previous releases (‘Fleurs’, ‘A Verlaine Songbook’, ‘Reason in Madness’ – all warmly recommended). I remember thinking at the time that the structure of the concert reminded me – as a ‘fan’ since they started recording as a duo – of a perfect rock gig: a healthy chunk of choices from the new record, with cherry-picked highlights from the ‘back catalogue’. I would have happily turned up to hear them, of course, without knowing what they would play – but at the same time, this would have been close to an ideal set-list.

Stephen Hough’s ‘Dream Album’

And I’ve already mentioned Stephen Hough: without doubt, I own more CDs by Hough than any other pianist. This is not just because I love his sound and technique, but also his approach: the fact that, among his complete-work recordings, he consistently releases themed albums that work like wide-ranging compilations, always placing new experiences and interesting juxtapositions before the listener. These releases bottle the energy of Hough’s on-stage enthusiasm when he’s introducing pieces mid-encore. The thought of turning up to a Hough concert with no idea what he will perform, just knowing he’s been given a completely free hand with the programme, ignites exactly the same feelings of excitement that Teenage Me felt wondering what Pixies or James were going to play next. The thrill is never gone.


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