Rethinking the Concert Hall – Part 1: Introduction and Concert Etiquette

The notion that “classical music is dying” is one that’s been tossed around and repeated so often over the decades that it’s almost become cliché.

The truth of the matter is, classical music is not dying. It’s very much alive and well in an abundance of ways. Say what you will about the digital realm, but there’s no question that services like Amazon, YouTube, and Wikipedia have made it easier than ever to purchase recordings, access videos, and look up information about the music. (There’s even a new website – Primephonic – which is dedicated exclusively to streaming classical music.) Live score-to-film concerts, which have presented everything from Casablanca to Star Wars, can attract hundreds (or thousands) of eager audience members, both young and old. Startups like Groupmuse are reviving the classical salon by staging intimate chamber music performances in people’s homes. These few examples only scratch the surface of how classical music is still thriving and continuing to inspire, amaze, and draw in listeners all over the world.

However, not all is as it could be.

Most notably, it’s difficult to ignore the preeminent symbol of classical music – the concert hall. Though it is, has been, and will likely remain the optimal location to experience this music, the statistics of professional orchestras both in the U.S. and elsewhere often paint a dismal picture. Diminishing budgets, an aging subscriber base, and stagnant repertoire can make it easy to slap the “anachronistic” label on the art form and those who practice it. In a recent article for the Washington Post, music critic Anne Midgette shared a similar concern, saying that, “Classical music isn’t in trouble. It’s classical music’s institutions that are the problem.” (The scandals that recently came to light with prominent conductors Charles Dutoit and James Levine, the latter of which Midgette’s article discusses, do not help things either.) There are exceptions of course, but the future of concerts and professional orchestras as a whole can look rather bleak.

So, what can be done to bring the classical concert fully and unabashedly into the 21st century? How can it maintain its relevance and better reflect our fast-paced and increasingly diverse society? How can it successfully “bridge the gap,” maintaining a respect for the music but positively challenge the way that it is both experienced and understood?

In this multiple-part series, I will outline some thoughts that I have on the current state of the classical concert and provide some suggestions which could breathe some fresh air into this beloved, yet sometimes tired-old institution. (I will also highlight groups and organizations that are currently doing some really awesome and innovative things.) It is my belief that more discussions like this could prove fruitful in enticing new audiences, maintaining the passion of lifelong fans (like myself), and securing the success of the art form for years to come.

Of course, it should be mentioned that the opinions I express here are solely my own. I do recognize that some of them may be built from general information gleaned online, personal biases, and my experiences in a relatively limited sphere (i.e. mainly attending classical concerts in California for most of my life and not many elsewhere). I will do my best to point out any biases or generalizations that I make, or back them up with factual support when appropriate. (Like any good scholar would do!)

In any case, my first set of thoughts are as follows, with more to come soon…

Concert Etiquette:

One area that is often hotly debated in classical circles is the notion of concert etiquette. Questions regarding applause and the “proper” way to listen to live music have commonly sparked confusion and strong opinions from both newcomers and connoisseurs alike.

Overall, it’s become the accepted belief that classical music is most appropriately consumed in an environment of quiet. (We have a misunderstanding created by Richard Wagner in 1882 partially to thank for this idea.) On the surface, the concept is twofold. First, the acoustics of concert halls are often so sensitive, that even the smallest, most unintentional noises can be amplified tenfold. A program slipping off of an audience member’s lap and hitting the floor, for instance, can create a sound akin to an atomic bomb exploding. More practically, the musicians onstage have put in countless hours of both individual practice and/or ensemble rehearsal, so it’s only fair to grant them the respect that their hard work and talent deserves.

However, there is a third undercurrent slipped into the mix. In a great 1983 article entitled “Museum Pieces: The Historicist Mainstream in Music of the Last Hundred Years,” musicologist J. Peter Burkholder notes that in the 19th century, as classical music became recognized as an “art,” listening to music in the concert hall became an individual experience, rather than a shared, communal event. Listeners were encouraged to quietly and individually grapple with the music, seeking to understand the composer’s intentions. (Composers themselves also became recognized as artists, figures to be elevated to almost God-like status for their artistic creations.) This solidified the classical concert as a ritual of silence and reverence, with hundreds of individuals collectively embarking on their own personal listening journeys.

Sure, listening to the music in a quiet environment is all fine and good, but the downside of this 19th century belief is that it has often fostered an attitude of pretentiousness in the concert hall. An if-you-disturb-this-sublime-performance-of Bach’s-Mass-in-B-minor-with-your-coughing-one-more-time-then-I-will-make-you-rue-the-day-you-were-born attitude. This is a hyperbole obviously (at least, I hope so!), but it’s sad to witness or read about the contempt that some audience members receive on the behalf of certain veteran concertgoers. Ill-timed coughs and sneezes, dropped programs, accidental applause, and forgotten cell phone alarms can often create such a fuss that you’d think that the performance they’re intruding on is the last one of all time. (If it’s one of the classical “war horses” like Grieg’s Piano Concerto or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, trust me… it won’t be.)

Applauding after the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony?! How dare you!!

While these incidents can seem like the worst thing ever, it’s extremely unlikely that offenders who break the silence are intentionally trying to create a disturbance and infringe on everyone’s personal experience of the music. Maybe the offender simply had to unwrap a cough drop during the quiet moment in the piece because if they hadn’t, they would have caused even more of a racket with their coughing. Maybe the offender was loving the soloist’s playing and just wanted to read their bio in the program but accidentally ended up dropping the program instead. Maybe the offender was so eager to express their excitement after the rousing third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, that they started applauding without even realizing that there was one movement left.

Furthermore, though many conductors and orchestras have learned to tune out these distractions, there are still plenty of horror stories out there of concertgoers being singled out from the stage (!) because of an unintentional disturbance that was created. In any case, I can think of no sadder way to discourage the fostering of new audiences than because of how they were treated by the “connoisseurs” of the concert hall. (The general “high and mighty” attitude that’s often held towards classical music might be something that I address in a future installment of this series.)

Now, I’m not advocating for a 180-degree return to what concerts were like in the 18th century. Back then, musical performances were often a secondary, background amusement for audiences more focused on eating, drinking, and socializing. When music was the focal point, cheers and applause would sometimes break out spontaneously and entire movements could be repeated if the audience especially liked what they heard. (Can you imagine how fascinating that would be today though?) Of course, there are certain performance situations that welcome a more relaxed listening environment but overall, I have a great love for listening to this music in the quiet and sensitive acoustics of the concert hall. Not only is it fascinating to witness a fine-tuned orchestra “do their thing” live, but many instrumental colors, textures, and details can magically reveal themselves under these special conditions, some of which are difficult to capture on audio recordings.

There are even times when a silent and reverential listening environment can lead to some truly extraordinary moments. For instance, one of my all-time favorite concert memories was hearing Gustavo Dudamel conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic back in 2016. Their performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony was stunning as a whole but the last few minutes will be forever engrained in my mind. As the strings died out into nothingness in the final bars (marked ersterbend – “dying away” – in the score), the divide between music and silence became hauntingly indistinguishable. Once the music finally ceased, Dudamel managed to suspend the silence in the concert hall. Time seemed to stop and no one in the audience seemed to move or breathe. It was almost a full minute before Dudamel finally let go of the silence and welcomed the rapturous applause. The communal experience of sitting in total silence with hundreds of other people was truly stunning. Honestly, if the quiet atmosphere of the classical concert didn’t exist, powerful moments like this simply wouldn’t occur.

So what am I getting exactly? Sure, newer and more relaxed “rules” could be drafted or old ones could be thrown out, but both run the risk of either overcomplicating or oversimplifying practices that are already in place. I’m also not saying that these noise-making incidents aren’t distracting at all because they can be.

Perhaps it would be simpler to keep the current etiquette practices but allow room for forgiveness in the midst of it. If something happens that “disrupts” our listening experience, we should just take a deep breath and let it go. If someone starts clapping during an inopportune time, drops their program, sneezes, coughs, fumbles around with their cell phone alarm, if their oxygen tank starts leaking mid-piece (I speak from witnessing this in person!), whatever it may be – Let. It. Go. With so many people gathered together in an acoustically sensitive space, things are bound to happen; we’re only human. There are about a million things to enjoy in a live performance and a small annoyance here or there is not the end of the world. (Though I’m sure it can feel like that to the offenders who are singled out for causing such disturbances…) How these situations are handled could mean the difference between creating a new concert lover and them never setting foot in a concert hall ever again.

If you want the absolutely pristine, perfect, completely silent listening experience, then the solution is simple: you can have it at home by listening to your favorite recording on your stereo system, record player, phone, or computer! (Unless, of course, you have the means to hire your own private orchestra…) In this environment, any and all distractions can be easily controlled and regulated by you. Your iTunes is not going to sneeze or applaud at an ill-timed moment!

To conclude this segment with a real-life example, I love what the California Symphony has written on their website regarding applause at their concerts:

When do I applaud?
This can be a controversial question, and here’s why: In the early days of classical music the audience was rather rowdy—clapping, talking and even shouting during the performance. Then, at some point during the 20th century, this changed, and the social norm became to applaud only at the end of the piece and never between movements (in other words, clap at the end of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and stay silent during the breaks between movements 1, 2, 3 and 4). The trouble with this is for people who don’t know this unwritten rule about when to applaud, at every concert someone inevitably claps after the first movement and then feels weird because they’re the only one, or one of a few who somehow missed this secret memo. We decided that it’s kind of awkward, and not even true to the origins of classical music, so our policy is that when you have an emotional reaction to the music that you want to express, do it. If you love a movement of fill-in-the-blank symphony and want to cheer for the performance you just heard, do it! Note: not every orchestra feels this way, so don’t take this policy as the rule of thumb everywhere. At the California Symphony though, if you’re enjoying what you’re hearing, we’d love nothing more than for you to show it.

I believe that this mindset should be adopted across the board. It’s truly a wonderful thing for so many people to gather together to witness live music being made and fascinating to think that everyone is going to experience it in a slightly different way. I’ve learned over the years (and am still learning!) to let certain quibbles go and more people need to start embracing a similar attitude as well. In the concert hall, let the music play and let people be people, despite whatever may transpire.

Let’s make everyone feel welcome no matter what.

To be continued…

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