Sourpuss at the Symphony; or, how NOT to treat your fellow concertgoers

November 20, 2015, 2:26 PM · Let me set the scene for you. I am taking my seat in beautiful Symphony Center, the home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The program features Baroque concerti performed by Pinchas Zukerman and Stephanie Jeong, and is bookended by two Mozart masterpieces. I’m excited! I’ve never heard Zukerman live before and am looking forward to this experience.

Leaning in, I watch the CSO musicians warming up. TAP, TAP. I am poked by someone behind me. “Excuse me, do you have trouble seeing or something?” An older woman asks, a tetchy edge to her voice. “Nope!” I reply. “Then lean back in your seat because I have trouble seeing when you’re so far forward.” “Oh, sorry about that” I reply, and make sure the small of my back reaches the end of my seat. A bit surprised since this has not happened to me before, but I decide it’s no big deal. The first half of the program goes by, performed beautifully by all on stage. It cramps my style to try and sit in one position for the concert, but I’m doing my best.

Tetchy lady’s friend mutters darkly during intermission, “My friend Prissy [name changed to honor privacy] had this exact problem at the theatre last week. Could hardly see the stage.”

Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 begins the second half, and it’s glorious. The music swirls with energy and life, and each movement is concluding with a resonant chord that one can savor even after the musicians put their instruments down. I get a TAP TAP from the woman behind me at some point, perhaps 3rd movement, and I try to remember to lean back again. The last movement commences, and the violins are nailing it (it’s devilish to play) and I nod my head enthusiastically in admiration and in time with the rhythmic drive of this exuberant finale. The program ends and the CSO receives a well-deserved ovation. While I’m getting ready to leave I receive a final TAP TAP from the lady behind me, whom at this point is seriously aggravating me, and we have a little confab.

“Don’t you realize when you lean forward and move your head [she lolls her head about grotesquely] around that I can hardly see the stage? I could hardly see the timpanist half the time! Is this your regular seat?” I’m on the receiving end of a rather withering condemnation from this patron. “I’m sorry about this; I come here two or three times a month and have never had this problem before,” I reply. “Is this your regular seat!?” she demands again. “No, I usually move around this section. I’ve never had this problem before, but I’m sorry I impaired your view today.”

Finis.

Kitty Catty

This dialogue is absolutely accurate because it’s the sort of thing you replay over and over in your head, wishing you could have said something cooler, or more witty at the time. I think this woman’s behavior was pretty shocking for numerous reasons, listed here in no special order. Hopefully I’m not projecting too much.

  1. She was very rude and positively dripping with entitlement. Don’t talk to people with condescension or venom.
  2. She believed and preached that proper concert etiquette is to sit nice and still. Like a statue.
  3. She was worried that I was a subscriber and was going to mess up her view from then on.

Other issues I found (less objective): she needed an unimpeded view to enjoy the concert (you hear best when your eyes are closed, actually!), and she was territorial about her seat area. On a lighter note, she was, in my opinion, also misguided in her fascination with the timpani, especially since this was a Mozart symphony.

Now, some concessions.

  1. I am 6’ 3’’ and it’s entirely possible that I was blocking a fair chunk of the stage if I moved from the back of my seat. I’ve been an avid concertgoer for about five years now and have never had this issue before, but I suppose there’s a first time for everything.

Ok, that’s it from me.

Some excuses I’ve concocted for her rude behavior:

  1. She was a timpanist in her youth and was giddy at the thought of watching David Herbert perform his craft.
  2. She was David Herbert’s mother and hadn’t seen her son perform in many years.
  3. She just got LASIK surgery and was titillated at the thought of watching every single musician on stage that night without her glasses.
  4. She just donated $10m to the CSO and thought she darn well deserved an unblemished vista.
  5. She is a marvel of modern medicine, and, at 245 years of age, she wanted to compare the CSO’s rendition, particularly the timpanist’s version, to the premiere performance.

But in all seriousness, I’m so glad that it was me who was on the receiving end of her behavior rather than a newbie, because that sort of attitude would have scared me off from attending another performance.

I think concertgoers should absolutely be allowed to lean in their seat to catch every nuance in the music. I think bobbing your head in time to the music is great! It’s catchy, this classical music stuff! A topic for another blog is applause between movements. I think this is fine, except at the end of slow or intimate moments. When your outward appreciation of the music is curtailed and derided by others it makes for an awkward and unpleasant experience. Classical music is dying, we hear all the time. I don’t believe this, but I do think some of the unfortunate and hurtful stereotypes associated with classical music are grounded in truth. Stuffy and snobby beliefs about concert etiquette are something we’re obviously still dealing with, and I hope these can fade away, ASAP.

All right, vent complete, thank you much for sticking with me here.

I’d love to hear your stories, positive or negative, about recent experiences as an audience member in the comments below!

Replies

November 21, 2015 at 01:18 AM · Ah -- the nerve of some people. I would have told the lady to keep her hands off.

I never had a concert hall encounter like the one you described, although my being only 5'10" to your 6'3" might have had something to do with this. But I've heard more than a few unhappy stories from concertgoers -- compare your experience with the one in Joshua and the Symphony Snobs.

The demands on me these days keep me away from the concert hall; but when I read about these annoying patrons, like the lady in your story, I'm more than content to enjoy the music via radio and YouTube and CD instead.

I don't believe classical music is dying, either. From the few hopeful signs I see, though, I'm optimistic that the stuffy snobbery around it is gradually dying.

November 21, 2015 at 07:54 PM · Thanks for commenting, Jim. I hope this blog won't scare you or others off from attending a concert. This was actually my first negative experience, and was so ridiculous I felt compelled to share.

I agree with you that the snootiness is on its way out, I just wish it were going away even faster.

November 21, 2015 at 08:55 PM · At a recent concert I found myself changing my position, to sit straight up in my chair instead of leaning back, as the leaned-back position was really hurting my back. I was a little conscious about doing so, then I looked around and saw that a few others were doing the same thing. Fortunately, the seats are at such a pitch in Disney Hall that it really wouldn't block anyone's view, not even if you are over six feet tall. But sitting in one position the entire time can be difficult!

November 21, 2015 at 09:28 PM · I have to gently disagree on applause between movements in a symphony (or tone poem or concerto), primarily because a symphony is meant to be coherent, with movements musically flowing into each other. Applause between movements disrupts the tone (or mood) that is supposed to transition you to the next movement. The length of pause between movements is in itself artful.

A symphony to me is like reading a book that is broken into chapters, with a consistent storyline (or journey) that is building towards a conclusion or epilogue. There are times where you simply don't want to stop between chapters because you are so captivated; other times, you want to take a short walk to process what just happened in that chapter, before proceeding to the next.

To applaud between movements in a collection of short pieces or a collection of waltzes, on the other hand, would be okay; that would be akin to reading a tome of short stories, with each story standing on its own.

November 21, 2015 at 10:32 PM · I sat once in the Orchestra section of the CSO hall. As I recall, it is not stadium at all, so it may be hard to see for some folks who are not tall if they sit in that section. However, impeding someone's ability to see the timpanist is clearly a hanging offense!

November 21, 2015 at 10:53 PM · I'm sorry to hear you had such an experience at the concert hall Graham! I (thankfully) cannot really empathise with you but I also think Australia can tend to be more laid back (and Melbourne's concert halls have nice tiered seating!).

I personally cannot sit in the same position for as long as you are required to in those concerts. I think people often forget that this was not the way classical music was consumed at the time it was written. There were often banquets and meals accompanying, and talking, while the music was just there being played. The concert hall has taken a while to evolve into what it is today, and similarly, it will take a while (along with classical music) to transition into something less innately uncomfortable for people also :)

November 22, 2015 at 02:52 AM · Visual is certainly part of the concert experience, at least for me. I'm short, and my view is often blocked if there is a tall guy in front of me. Not his/her fault, but I would certainly appreciate if the person decides not to sit straight up in the seat all the time. Otherwise, I would try to lean myself slightly to the left or to the right to get a better view. However, if the the person happens to shift his/her position all the time, that would be extremely annoying. I have never asked a tall person to lean back, but I did once ask a guy, politely, not to swing around in the seat. I understand that everyone wants to enjoy concerts in his/her own way, but the concert hall is an open space and one's preference sometimes gets in the way of another's. Be considerate and mutually respectful to each other is important.

November 22, 2015 at 03:27 AM · Thanks for the feedback, guys!

@72.196.246.215; I am mostly in agreement with you, but let me posit one exception: first movement of Tchaikovsky violin concerto. It always feels so stingy to make the hardworking soloist just bask in silence after working so hard for 20 minutes! This is a case where I think applause is appropriate.

@Henry Wang; I'm glad you were polite when asking the person in front to not move around so much. I wouldn't have written this blog had I been treated with respect by the person behind me.

November 22, 2015 at 09:12 AM · I am glad to read that this unpleasant encounter didn't spoil the concert for you. Also, you remained polite throughout, which is something I cannot guarantee if someone (repeatedly) touches me - what atrocious behaviour!

November 22, 2015 at 02:50 PM · We live near Chicago, and we often attend the CSO. Once, we bought nosebleed seats for a children's performance. I kid you not, the guy behind us was eating soup. From a crinkly plastic bag. While the kids he was chaperoning kicked my son in the head repeatedly.

November 22, 2015 at 03:10 PM · When I go to a concert - I go to hear the music and SEE the musicians.

I seem to have a bit of bad luck with fully enjoying a concert because my view is obstructed - and I admit to getting irked.

Last night we were lucky to have 'best seats' - perfect! I was so excited! But then the seats filled up in front of us...and the young woman who sat directly in front of me...obviously bored, spent the greater part of the concert playing with, tossing and flicking her hair (well into 'my' personal space). It was distracting. All I am going to remember seeing...is the back of her head and all her hair...every strand of it.

Meanwhile - I try to be as considerate as I can be; I sit quietly. I try not to fidget despite my arthritis and fibro issues (I get sore, stiffen up, and really do need to move). I don't wrinkle candy wrappers. I don't wear perfume. I don't wear clothes that smell heavily like stale cabbage. I don't talk loudly. I don't play on my phone. I don't hang my coat over my chair into the space of the person seated behind me. I don't whack people on the head with my purse as I make my way to my seat. I don't flick my hair all over the place.

Fine...so I'm a Saint ;)...but my question is why should I have to uncomplainingly accommodate everyone else's personal likes and dislikes when they are 'unwilling' to accommodate mine? And all I want is to be able to listen and SEE in relative comfort?

I agree that being a snob is unwarranted...but so is being entitled.

November 22, 2015 at 05:58 PM · I like to be able to shift around in my seat and to sit on the edge of my seat for the intense parts too.

One option is to ask to trade seats with the folks to your immediate left or right, especially if they are shorter than you. Explain that your height is a problem for the shorter person behind you (which you find out by asking them directly). I've done this, and it's not that hard especially when attending by myself. Failing to at least attempt some accommodation is inconsiderate. I don't think, however, that you need to worry about whether your fellow concertgoers can see the timpanist unless the timpanist is either (a) a relative of theirs, or (b) really hot.

A word about perfume: Nobody wants to smell you. Period.

November 22, 2015 at 06:01 PM · Most enjoyable read Graham. Really LIKE the sourpuss/cat graphic--- hee hee.

November 22, 2015 at 06:30 PM · Graham, that is so rude to the point of being funny. Sorry you had to experience that.

Not that this excuses that person's behavior, but there is a possibility she had timpani ties.

A few years ago I went to a recital (not timpani). There were a lot of society types in the audience. I was one of the only people without grey hair. I felt underdressed and out of place despite being a musician who had performed several of the pieces on the program. One of the audience members near me tapped me on the shoulder. He asked: "This must be your first concert. Would you like me to tell you how to clap? Have you ever heard of [super famous composer on the program] and do you have any questions?" It turned out he was with the mother of the soloist, and they just wanted to talk about him and his program. She was beaming with pride.

November 23, 2015 at 01:36 AM · My husband and I took the kids to see a nintendo themed concert at the DSO. It wasn't the best music, and one of the most ill behaved audiences I've ever seen. Some people wore jeans and tee shirts, others broke out their prom dresses. Nobody knew when to clap; people talked and laughed. BUT- That was one of the most enthusiastic audiences I've ever seen. I really enjoyed the exuberance and I wish I could see that in a classical concert. I can't imagine how most symphony patrons would respond to so much enthusiasm, though.

November 23, 2015 at 03:04 AM ·

The perfume, oh, the perfume. Why the perfume?

And the cell phones. Yes, the ringer might be turned off, and bravo for you and have a gold star sticker, but the glowing light of the screen is just as bad as a ringtone. Screen time can wait.

Oh, yes, I almost forgot the nice man that took up more than his share of aisle space by placing his legs in a wide obtuse angle.

And leg splaying man hummed along too. It was interesting to hear him hum along to Rachmaninoff. Perhaps something for the Authentic Performance Crowd to examine 50 years hence? 'Tis the sound of 1,000 PhD thesis topics launched!

And let us not exclude the nice youngish couple that got rather...friendly during the first half of the concert. Um, no.

That's my list for the last few years.

To be fair, soft talking and whispering don't seem to be as popular as they used to be. Perhaps their vocal chords are numbed from all the perfume?

I'm sorry it is a trial for you to sit still. Head bobbing is distracting. Maybe you can sit in the back row?

November 23, 2015 at 05:41 AM · Fun to read through these, thanks for sharing everyone!

@38.69.9.159; that is a new one to me! Soup at the Symphony. At least these make for good stories after the fact, right?

@N.A. Mohr; did you ask the girl in front of you to stop flicking her hair? If something's bothering you, it's totally fine to request them to stop as long as it's cordial. Then again, I'm definitely the "grin and bear it" type so I understand if you didn't feel like a confrontation.

@Paul Deck; yes, next time something like this happens (fingers crossed it won't...) I'll nip it in the bud by finding a new seat, believe me.

@Frieda Francis; that's a sweet recital story! Re: underdressing, I was actually rather underdressed for this particular concert which could very well have played a factor in the proceedings.

@Jenny Rambo; I love that everyone was so enthusiastic! As Daniel Tan mentioned in an earlier comment, talking and laughing during a concert was the norm a couple hundred years ago. It would be nice to find a balance between that freedom and the protocol for "serious" symphony programs. The Nintendo theme seems like a great intermediary.

@Anne Horvath; that's quite the list you've got there! Re: head bobbing... yes, maybe I used a misleading word there. I said "nod" when describing myself and perhaps that's more what I had in mind... a subtle manifestation of the music's rhythm and a sign of engagement with the piece. It's a musicianly quirk I've observed in many when they're listening. Not a distraction, I've found. Re: sitting still, I don't think it's criminal to move within your seat from time to time. In fact I'd argue it's healthier to shift now and then and let that blood flow. Deep vein thrombosis and all. Re: sitting in the back row... in my opinion that's the kind of dismissive attitude that scares new/potential audiences from attending concerts. "Only model listeners may take the good seats. Riffraff at the back." Perhaps my blog left you ill at ease with my concert etiquette, hence the suggestion. You're welcome to come to Chicago and check it out sometime, I've had no complaints thus far save from sourpuss.

November 23, 2015 at 07:18 AM · It reads like a funny story but I find the old lady's behaviour rather aggravating. She should realize that people come in all sizes and blocked view is a common experience of mine. If she does not want that she should buy the first row. If she tapped me on the shoulder second time I would ask her to stop that or I would call an usher. It is nobody's duty to sit still during the whole performance.

Re youngish couple - what better place to find than a romantic concert. There used to be 'courting seats' at the back.

November 23, 2015 at 05:12 PM · I have often visited Chicago, and have so for many years, though your invitation is appreciated.

Perhaps, in time, you will discover that the last few rows of many halls, especially in balconies, have the best acoustics. And these seats tend to be less expensive! Good sound + good price = good seat.

As an added bonus, We, The Towering Tall Tree People (I am just shy of five-ten) don't end up blocking views of the more, shall we say, vertically challenged concert goers.

November 23, 2015 at 08:58 PM · @Anne Horvath; I'm lucky to attend CSO concerts courtesy of Bachtrack.com (I write reviews for them) and the CSO places the press on the lower balcony which is a pretty nice acoustic. When the day inevitably comes when I don't get a press ticket or student discount, I'll definitely take up your suggestion of those last few rows!

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