Ending concerts with concerti?
September 26, 2008 6:00 AM   Subscribe

I recently came across an article (which, of course, is now lost to my browser's history) that offhandedly mentioned that traditional classical concerts rarely end with a solo concerto. Is this in fact true? If so, why would that be the case?
posted by sappidus to Media & Arts (11 answers total)
The introduction to this New Yorker article basically concurs with the information from the piece you read. The article itself talks about the evolution of traditional classical concert programming and cites a couple books that cover the topic in detail, and which might answer your question most directly.
posted by OilPull at 6:14 AM on September 26, 2008

This is true. The standard classical concert usually takes the form 1) overture 2) concerto 3) interval (intermission) 4) symphony.

There are many exceptions to this rule, but this is the basic model. I don't know exactly why this is, but off the top of my head it might be because it creates a balanced concert of two halves that are roughly equal in length (concertos tend to be shorter than symphonies).

I'd be interested to know whether anyone can shed light on why this tradition arose. I do know that Beethoven's concerts were mammoth affairs with multiple long works performed at each.
posted by altolinguistic at 6:21 AM on September 26, 2008

I believe it arose roughly in parallel with the aesthetic of dead-composer-worship -- when you are presenting works by Geniuses that have stood the test of time, in a quasi-museum setting, it becomes the responsibility of the music director to craft the night into, in effect, a bigger work of music. The overture, concerto, and symphony stand in (roughly) for 1st movement, scherzo, and finale of a symphony, or on a smaller scale the exposition, development, and recap of a single movement. (Or, to massively oversimplify: the overture is light, the concerto is exciting, and the symphony is comforting.)

The theory is that this basic phrasing is reinforced at all scales (8-bar phrases, 100-bar sections, entire movements, entire works, and the entire night), and the job of the programmer is to take care of the last stage.

The epic Beethoven concerts had a vibe that was much more in keeping with people dealing with living, current art, and by all accounts had an atmosphere that was a lot more like a show at a jazz club 50 years ago or a rock concert today than what we do in symphony halls currently. Reviewers pretty consistently reported concertgoers coming and going, talking, eating, drinking (heavily), applauding at the good parts, making passes at each other, etc.

My favorite part of these old concerts is the programs; it helps keep you in a good frame of mind when you're performing (or hearing) new music today. There might be 10 pieces on the list. One of them is a Beethoven symphony, and the other 9 are (typically) totally forgettable pieces by composers you've never heard of. And that's only because Beethoven was at that concert! Undoubtedly there were many others that went 10 for 10. One of the reasons (I think) new music concerts are so hard for people is that we've been trained to appreciate vetted, time-tested, museum-quality music, but not the search that led us to find it in the first place.
posted by range at 7:16 AM on September 26, 2008

I should also point out that lots of major orchestras have been, more and more, replacing the overture in the format with a piece of new music, more or less abusing the audience's expectations to get them to try something new. "You want to hear Yo-Yo Ma tonight? That's great; he'll be right out. But before that, I have this really cool Ligeti/Schoenberg/Cage/Reich piece that you really ought to hear."
posted by range at 7:21 AM on September 26, 2008

I don't think I've ever seen a concerto end a traditional orchestra concert, and I've seen 100+ such concerts at this point (I'm not counting orchestra concerts of only or mostly new music, which don't follow the same traditions).

In practical terms: for a sometimes substantial chunk of any given audience, the concerto soloist was the primary draw in deciding to buy tickets. So: gotta put the concerto before intermission for those who, for whatever reason (stamina, age, don't want to get home late, etc.) aren't up to staying for the entire concert.

In aesthetic terms: a concerto makes less sense as a concert-ender because even though it has the excitement of virtusic playing, it has less 'mass' -- less overall sonic impact -- than a typical symphony or other large-scale work without soloist. Purely in terms of volume and density of instruments playing, a concerto feels relatively slight (especially a Mozart-era or older concerto, which is still common especially for piano and wind soloists). A symphonic work has the greater density and legth -- time to build up the substantial mass and momentum that feel more like an appropriate/satisfying end for the night. These are generalizations, but they're useful given the nature of major orchestra programming (playing the same pieces over and over again).
posted by kalapierson at 8:05 AM on September 26, 2008

virtusic = virtuosic
posted by kalapierson at 8:07 AM on September 26, 2008

I saw Joshua Bell perform with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra a few weeks ago, and his concerto was the second of three pieces performed (albeit after the intermission). I thought it odd that they wouldn't put Bell's performance last--until after the concert, when I saw that he was signing autographs in the lobby. Naturally, it wouldn't make sense for him to perform the final piece then rush out to the lobby while the audience was still applauding.

Of course, this doesn't answer the question for soloists of less-than-superstar status.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:53 AM on September 26, 2008

Just seconding what kalapierson said, from the point of view of someone who's attended or played in more than 1,000 orchestral concerts. It's so much the norm that you "never end the program with a concerto" that I had not given it a second's thought to why that was, or how the custom came about, until now.

Bill Weber knows more about this than anyone, and he writes very well (and accessibly for the lay audience), so I would definitely recommend reading his new book if you want more info.

It wasn't just concerts that changed in the 19th century: the theater moved from offering afterpieces and vaudevilles to offering just one big play.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:35 AM on September 26, 2008

Here's another idea I've had for why the concerto might end the first half, rather than ending the entire concert. The concerto is very focused on the soloist; in many pieces, the orchestra is merely a vehicle for the soloist's fireworks. At the end of the piece (and, usually, the first half of the concert), the soloist is the focus of the bows. If there are encores, they are often solo works (i.e. not mini-concertos, but the soloist playing alone).

Ending the concert with a piece for the orchestra alone returns the focus to the orchestra itself and to the music director. Any encores would be played by the orchestra, not the soloist. Since the orchestra is the constant factor throughout the concert, it makes sense for it to frame the evening.
posted by bassjump at 1:55 PM on September 26, 2008

I think it's natural to want to arrange a program to end with the loudest bang. Most symphonies end with louder bangs than most concertos.

Also, you often don't need the full orchestra to accompany a concerto. You want to end with a number that involves everyone, otherwise the brass section will escape and go to the pub, and no one wants that.
posted by Pallas Athena at 2:32 PM on September 26, 2008

There's also the issue (instinctively understood by most people) of aural fatigue. Your ears get tired after a while, and the louder what you're hearing is, the faster that happens. Having the big loud fireworks earlier in the program deadens your ears to the subtleties you'll usually find with a soloist. It's roughly the same principle as constructing tasting menus; you'll rarely find the heavy/intensely garlic-chili-etc flavours at the front end of the meal.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 12:35 AM on September 27, 2008

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