Symphonies for Snoozing? When it's OK to Be Bored in Concerts

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We've all had moments when our mind has wandered during a Wagner opera, a Bruckner symphony or perhaps a long Mozart recitative. Some of us have even dozed off. But maybe we shouldn’t beat ourselves up when our thoughts drift to a grocery list or an e-mail we forgot to send earlier.

Boredom in the concert hall may actually be a good thing, says John Crace, a features writer for the Guardian newspaper. In a recent article he argued that the slow, tedious moments in classical music make the exciting ones that much better.

Among the works Crace cited is Wagner's six-hour Parsifal, which puts extremely high demands on modern listeners. "There's an hour-and-a-half of absolutely sublime music, which makes it all worthwhile," he told host Jeff Spurgeon. "And then there are bits, especially in the second act, when my mind starts to wander."

It probably was the fault of Wagner – not the listener or the performer. "He expected his audiences to come along for the ride with him," Crace continued. "And I don’t think audiences are always prepared to do that."

But other industry-watchers disagree that the blame rests with the composer. "Before I would go attacking the repertoire per se, I would first take a look at the performance," said Ben Finane, editor-in-chief of Listen magazine. "I think it’s incumbent upon the singers to establish good chemistry on stage for those [Mozart] recitatives. It’s incumbent upon the conductor to keep things moving, and when that happens, I’m not dosing off."

In 2011, BBC Music Magazine asked 10 leading music critics to name the most boring masterpieces in classical music. Responses included Mahler's Eighth Symphony, Bruckner's Seventh Symphony, Vivaldi's Gloria and several operas: Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Puccini's Madam Butterfly and Rossini's Cenerentola, among others. "There was no common thread, which shows that one man’s meat is another man’s poison," said Jeremy Pound, the magazine's deputy editor.

Wagner has frequently come in for criticism, and some critics say it's a rare opera of his that couldn't be improved by taking 20 minutes (or more) off the running time. "That’s the trouble with Wagner is there’s so much good stuff in there but you have to sit through the dreary stuff in between," noted Pound.

Crace believes that opera is a challenge because, unlike a play, it's difficult to cut in performance. "No one would dream of performing Hamlet at five hours," he said. "But there is a feeling in opera that somehow there’s an irreverence attached if every note of every bar is not included."

Perhaps the media has unfairly hyped epic works and created unreasonable expectations in audiences, said Pound. But just as important to realize is that, with age, a listener's concept of time starts to change. "What was boring to me 20 years ago now I absolutely adore," Pound added.

Listen to the segment above and tell us: Are there pieces that sometimes make your mind wander? Leave your comments below.