About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Friday, July 6, 2012

Beyond Applause: the Controversy Continues

Applause and audience expression through cheering, laughing and shouting is a hot topic. The latest that I saw was an article in the New York Times, "A Loud Call for Cheering at Classical Concert Halls" which reports on an article in the Huffington Post by the chief executive and managing director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Richard Dare, titled "The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained." The title made me wonder why he is managing a symphony orchestra, but reading the article it is clear that he does love music.

There are two sides to the applause issue, the audience perspective and the performers' view. Mr. Dare writes from the audience perspective, particularly the new audience member. He argues that the experience of going to a live concert is difficult to figure out. I know from talking with friends who attended their first classical concert that this can be true. One friend asked me how I knew who was conducting and what they were playing -- she didn't know how to find the actual program in her program book which included articles, ads, and lists of donors. I've had strangers ask me where in the program we are. On the other hand, as a person who rarely goes to professional sporting events, I always find that experience baffling -- how do you find your section? where are the bathrooms? why can't you bring an umbrella in if it's raining? No one seems to consider these to be "obtuse and unfriendly" barriers to attending games. There is a learning curve in any new experience.

Mr. Dare also discusses how concerts were different in the past, that audiences did clap between movements and shout. According to primary sources, this is all true. At some concerts audiences demanded an encore of a movement in the middle of a piece. Sometimes audiences shouted requests for other pieces by the same composer. For composers of Mozart's time, audiences may have talked through out the performance. If it's your royal patron, what can you do? For quite some time now, though, composers have written as if they expect audiences to listen to their multi-movements works as a complete entity. Mahler symphonies, for example, are a journey from the beginning of the first movement to the last notes of the final movement.

From the other side, performers and many audience members  want to be able to listen in silence without the distraction of noises from other people. Most of the many comments in response to  Mr. Dare's article made that point. This blog post, "The Truth Behind the Concert Hall,"  by a violinist, is a passionate defense of quiet during performances and also of the ways that music lovers express their feelings without making a lot of noise.

The whole issue comes down to declining and aging audiences for classical concerts. This is not a new issue and orchestras, opera companies, and other classical music groups have been trying different ideas to try to attract more and younger concert-goers. Free concerts, concerts with pre-concert talks, early concerts, shorter concerts, flash mobs.... there are a lot of ideas being tried. The feeling seems to be that attending and supporting classical music was an activity of the elite and now that group has diminished. However, other place don't have this problem. In Vienna there is a waiting list years long for subscription tickets to the Vienna Phil. When we attended Tannhauser at the opera there, someone near us was talking when the orchestra prologue began. At least seven people all said, "ssssst!" to silence the talker. They are passionate about music there. Why is it different in Vienna than in the U.S.? They are becoming more multi-cultural, just as the United States is. How is their tradition different that so many Viennese have continued to actively support the many musical groups in the city?

While I was reading the articles that led me to write some more about audience behavior, I kept finding more and more information and opinion. Richard Dare wrote a follow-up article, "The Danger of Writing about Music." Another blogger with opinions about classical music audiences can be found here in this post "How to get more people to listen to classical music". For some original ideas on how organizations could improve the concert experience read "Why the Symphony needs a Progress Bar." There is a lively conversation going on, showing that many people feel strongly about the continuation of classical music. Yes!!