Classical performances benefit from flexible schedules

Hong Kong has been slow to change concert times to suit audience needs, writes Sam Olluver

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 June, 2013, 9:47am

The stuffy image of classical music concerts - "sit up, shut up and put up with what we think is good for you" - is becoming a thing of the past. Although Hong Kong may be lagging behind in thinking innovatively to service audience needs, recent developments in concert arrangements reveal, at least, an awakening to new possibilities.

One of the most recent examples was the Hong Kong Philharmonic's Swire Denim Series in April and May. Held on Fridays and Saturdays at 9pm at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, and lasting about 75 minutes, this series replaced the usual format of longer concerts starting at 8pm that feature an interval.

Concentration spans have become shorter because of multitasking
Michael Macleod HK Philharmonic

Attendance was healthy, although the programme content was motley, comprising a baroque-to-Beatles bran tub, a performance of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony at the behest of the audience who voted for it on Facebook, and sell-out jazz programmes featuring James Morrison.

"It is actually a bit crazy to schedule a concert starting at 8pm, the same time that most people would sit down to dinner," says Michael MacLeod, the Hong Kong Philharmonic's chief executive.

He has experience of the issue dating back to his time running the City of London Festival. Once, he filled a rush hour series by programming a different Beethoven string quartet at 6.15pm on each of the festival's 16 weekdays.

"People could miss the rush hour, go to a church or a hall to listen to a Beethoven string quartet and then go home feeling elated," he says.

While running the Glimmerglass Festival in the US, he adjusted start times to match the market. "In the US the average age of a symphony orchestra audience is now around 68," MacLeod says. "These people don't want to be going out at night, as they can't drive. So, out of the seven performances per week, four were at 2pm, and three were at 8pm."

As a major sponsor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, Swire is keen to cultivate new audiences. One notable success has been the Swire Symphony Under The Stars event, an outdoor concert that accommodated audiences of up to 15,000 people who bring their own food. The start time for that is 7.30pm.

Alternative concert times, programmes and venues are hardly something new abroad. You don't have to look too hard among news snippets for stories of orchestras going boldly where their founding fathers would have had a fit of the vapours.

Last month, the London Symphony Orchestra and its principal conductor, Valery Gergiev, teamed up with players from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, plus young musicians from one of its educational projects in East London, to perform an all-Berlioz programme, culminating in the Symphonie Fantastique .

Just as interesting as the 6.30pm timing was the fact that it took place in the capital's rush-hour axle of Trafalgar Square. The pigeons are still recovering.

Last month, the New York Philharmonic devoted one of its concerts at Germany's Dresden Music Festival to a performance of Magnus Lindberg's Kraft. Held in a Volkswagen assembly plant, the spare parts proved irresistible as novel percussion instruments for the composer to indulge his wacky whims.

Locally, digestion and timing, however, are two factors that grind, rather than harmonise, in government performance venues run by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD).

"Ninety-five per cent of the [city's] halls are owned by the government," says Margaret Yang, chief executive of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. "They have a 6pm to 7pm meal break for the workers; it's a very rigid restriction. So you can't start a concert at 7.30pm, because they then have to clean the seats and put the programmes on the chairs."

She relates an incident from 10 years ago when the orchestra wanted to stage a concert at City Hall for the Prince of Liechtenstein who had to catch a flight at 9pm. "We had to start the concert at 6pm. That threw up so much trouble. We were finally able to do it due to diplomatic reasons," she says.

One of the Sinfonietta's successful developments has been its monthly Good Music This Lunch chamber music recitals, lasting 45 minutes and held in the foyer of City Hall. It quickly became a standing-room only affair, but satisfying the market thirst for the initiative wasn't easy.

"Such concerts must have been around for the past 30 years everywhere else," says Yang. "So I don't know why we had to struggle with the LCSD to have even a foyer concert. You can't imagine what we went through."

Undeterred, the troupe introduced Good Music This Morning as a pilot event last year, pitched at a new audience for whom an 11am weekday slot might be an attraction. Held in the City Hall Theatre, its success led to it being repeated at the start of the orchestra's new season in April.

"We found that, apart from retirees, there were mothers who had sent their children to school and hadn't yet picked them up," Yang explains. "They said 8pm is too late for them, as they have family obligations. So 11am is ideal."

In 2011, the Sinfonietta's inaugural residency at ArtisTree in One Island East tapped new audiences who, surprisingly, were not from the venue's Quarry Bay neighbourhood.

Travelling in from as far away as the New Territories, they were responding not only to the inventiveness of the programming, but to the timings, which ranged between 2.30pm and 9pm, the free admission and the more casual set-up.

Yang is content with the standard 8pm timing for most of their mainstream concerts, which are generally well patronised.

But at the Hong Kong Philharmonic, MacLeod is keen to continue exploring alternative slots to dovetail with changing lifestyles.

"I think studies have shown that people's concentration spans are less than what they used to be because we're into multitasking," he says.

"We've got so many things on the go at once, that maybe we don't want to sit in a hall for 2½ hours. Perhaps 75 minutes is just perfect."

Whether these slots will kick off at 9pm or 7pm remains to be seen, but MacLeod will certainly have one major supporter in the form of Jaap van Zweden, the orchestra's music director.

It's all about the conductor's dinner time, apparently. "He loves the idea of shorter concerts," says MacLeod. "Jaap prefers conducting hungry, and loves having meals after concerts, not before.

"So his inclination is for earlier concerts with a nice dinner afterwards," he says.