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 personal picks for none things that should change about classical music. Agree or disagree — share your opinions in comments below.
Clapping between movements
The urge to embrace your palms in a manner so as to express your appreciation of a good performance, wells from something very deep, and innate: connection. But when it risks the disruption of the enjoyment of the flow of sound between movements, it’s only the most cynical audience that disapproves. Sure, reverence is nice, but let’s not take ourselves too seriously. If Mahler, didn’t want people to clap at the end of the first movement of the 8th, he should have made people sit on their hands. If it were I, I’d be clapping at the recapitulation. This is revolutionary music, and a bit of noise from the audience is to be expected.
I’ve always felt standing ovations should be reserved only for most astonishing performances. Otherwise, the gesture risks losing its meaning — and somehow cheapens the act. It is the highest honour a performer can receive, and the sincerity of an ovation depends on it.
Cell phones are here to stay, and some people will always forget to turn off them off before a concert. The result is the inevitable mortifying mid-concert phone call drawing the ire of the entire concert hall. We need a solution, and I know this may sound heavy-handed, but wouldn’t jamming cell phone signals for the duration of the concert be reasonable?
Update: I’m told cell phone jammers are illegal in Canada and the US. Probably a good thing, but certainly not for classical music.
Tuning on stage
I’m on the fence about this one, but the argument against it is compelling. Everything you do on stage sends a message. So what is the message musicians 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. And I’m not talking about tuning backstage — just before the audience comes in. It shows respect for the audience’s valuable time.
Conductors walking on and off stage
This tradition seems as though it was born from affectation. Lenny Bernstein was the only one who could pull it off anyway. Let’s 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 risks becoming an expectation, rather than an earnest greeting or show of respect. The sense of spontaneity is gone, robbing it from any kind of sincerity.
Concerts billed with “Emerging Composers”
I always cringe when I hear the term “emerging composer”. Unless the composer is still in school, or under the age of 18, they aren’t “emerging” any more than any other musician.
For those of us who live and breathe classical music, in the here and now, seeing orchestras perform waring what amounts to 18th-century-period outfits (a.k.a. tailcoats) is cringe-worthy. A classical music performance practice is not a museum exhibit, and unless we’re going to bring back top hats and monocles, let’s get rid of them.
The tradition of ghettoizing contemporary music to the beginning of a program, regardless of how it balances with the rest of the repertoire, does no one any good. If we want to give new music a running chance at becoming the masterpieces of the future, we should treat them with the respect they deserve.