Two years ago a respected scientist and artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic was thrown out of a concert for attempting to crowd-surf. The show was part of an “accessible and informal” classical music concert.
According to the Independent, the Royal Society Research Fellow was so moved by the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ that he began physically rocking back and forth and raised his hands above his head. Calling out during the music, and then attempted to crowd-surf, prompting angry audience members to physically remove him from the concert hall.
While this is an extreme example, the concert etiquette at classical music performances can be a stifling experience for newbies attending symphony concerts. Whether it’s the anxiety about when to clap or what to wear, the fact is, none of these things have anything to do with the enjoyment of music.
If classical music is ever going move beyond a reputation for stiff upper lips, it’s time to start to look carefully at the conventions that have formed around the concert ritual.
Here are my picks for 10 things that should change about classical music. Feel free to contribute your own to the comments below.
Clapping between movements
There has always been an innate urge for the audience to communicate to the musicians on stage. It’s not a one-way street, and sometimes people can’t help themselves. Sorry Mahler, but if you didn’t want people to clap at the end of the first movement of the 8th, you should have made people sit on their hands. If it were I, I’d be clapping at the recapitulation.
Whether we like it or not, cell phones are here to stay, and people will always forget to turn off their phones. The simple solution is to jam cell phone signals for the duration of the concert. Simple. Done. No shame. Unfortunately, cell phone jammers are illegal in Canada and the US, but maybe that should change?
Tuning on stage
Everything you do on stage sends a message. So what is the message you send by tuning on stage? Answer: we couldn’t be bothered. The fact is (and despite what people will tell you), there is no reason why orchestras, soloists, and chamber ensembles can’t pre-tune before the doors open to let the audience in.
Conductors walking on and off stage
This is a silly tradition and seems mysteriously awkward, especially for anyone new to classical music. Toss it.
Conductors shaking hands with the Concertmaster
The concertmaster is a vital part of any orchestra, but the tradition of the conductor shaking their hand has become an expectation, rather than an earnest greeting or show of respect.
Concerts billed with “Emerging Composers”
I always cringe when I hear this term. The fact is unless the composer is still in school, or under the age of 18, they aren’t “emerging” any more than any other musician.
Standing ovations should be a rare and special gesture reserved only for most astonishing performances. Otherwise, the gesture becomes meaningless and cheapens the act.
Coats with tails
Unless they’re going to bring back top hats and monocles, let’s make a new tradition and get rid of these ridiculous looking suits.
The tradition of ghettoising contemporary music to the beginning of a program, regardless of how it balances with the rest of the repertoire, does no one any good.