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Classical music: it is NOT the trademark of culture.

May 31, 2012 at 10:22 AM

Our fellow member, Ronald Mutchnik, recently started a discussion in response to an article on Huffington Post. In it, the writer was discussing/bemoaning how the classical music has practically turned into North Korea, in which the protocols are so strict that music is not as enjoyable. He writes:
Although I loved the music I heard that evening, I was struck at the time by how matter-of-factly my guide dismissed my observation that concerts might not be easy to figure out for a first-timer. And he took it for granted that I would find the impressive edifice and music itself a satisfactory recompense for my troubles. And he might have been right, I suppose, had I at least been allowed to authentically enjoy the performance going on inside that hall as I might spontaneously appreciate any other cultural pursuit like a movie or a dance or a hip-hop concert -- if I could clap when clapping felt needed, laugh when it was funny, shout when I couldn't contain the joy building up inside myself. What would that have been like?

But this was classical music. And there are a great many "clap here, not there" cloak-and-dagger protocols to abide by. I found myself a bit preoccupied -- as I believe are many classical concert goers -- by the imposing restrictions of ritual behavior on offer: all the shushing and silence and stony faced non-expression of the audience around me, presumably enraptured, certainly deferential, possibly catatonic; a thousand dead looking eyes, flickering silently in the darkness, as if a star field were about to be swallowed by a black hole.

Now, I've been on both ends, as a performer looking across those "thousand dead looking eyes" and being one of the "thousand dead looking eyes". The truth is, what this writer is saying is half-truth, and half-inaccurate.

For one thing, any genre with long history already has established protocol. You do not scream in a ballet performance, for instance. You clap when the ballerina does the 32 fouettes or jetes around the stage, but that's about it. Similarly, if you shrieked "WOOHOO" in an opera performance, you'd be momentarily kicked out. It's called tradition. And for a scene newcomer, it is confusing and oppressive. But just as one would not eat a French 5 course meal without proper silverware, you don't clap in between movements.

Another thing is, the audience expects this oppression. People have a tendency to slap on the tag "culture" as soon as they hear classical arts. Breakdancing is ghetto but ballet is classy. Rock concert is common and even crass but classical concert is posh. While we performers don't regard it as such, others do, and that's undeniable.

The reason why we don't regard it in any special manner is because we are immersed in it. You walk through a conservatory, or any music department, and you'd see people with cellos on their backs, voices drifting from the windows, someone struggling through Scriabin (and cursing), Italian streaming through the doors and the teacher yelling "TEMPO!". You kick out the opera singer from a practice room without much deference, pointing out that you're a violinist and you need the room, the singers can sing outside (or maybe that's just me). Music is music, period.

But for others? How many times have I heard people hastily say, "Ah, I always wanted to go to the opera, I just didn't have time to..." when I casually mention that I saw the Aida performance last Friday, and Radames wasn't that good in his Celeste Aida? It's almost like it's a status symbol. I don't hear "Ah, I always wanted to go to a rap concert, but I just didn't have time to...". It's almost as if they immediately place me in the "upper class" section of the social strata, and feel the need to match up. "My daughter plays the violin!" is a brag-worthy mention. "My daughter plays the drums!" evidently is not.

Personally, I hate it when people clap in between movements. The music is not over. The story is not yet fully told, and people clap as if it is, and then my concentration is smashed away and I'm pulled back into this world. Do you clap or hoot when Queen is performing Bohemian Rhapsody? No! When the concentration is broken, you have to start from base one again and build up to the height you were at before. This is MUCH harder to do than the first time because you're already tired. When you're concentrating so much that you even forget where you are and then people clap in between movements and your concentration is broken, you have to get back into that mindless state much more quickly when you're already getting tired. NOT a fun thing to do.

The basis of the concert protocol hasn't changed much, folks. DON'T break the musician's concentration by noise. Appreciate loudly when it's appropriate.

FYI, Yes has produced a few tracks that are in movement form. The fans are NOT clapping in between movements. And people stand up and clap crazily in classical performances too.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 31, 2012 at 9:25 PM
People get very bent out of shape over this idea that you have to be quiet at a classical music concert, but perhaps they could consider this: quiet is the condition needed for making music. Quiet is the canvas for music, especially music that has a lot of detail and subtlety to it, music where moments are so carefully crafted. Would you splatter paint onto a fine painting?
From Adrian Demian
Posted on May 31, 2012 at 9:34 PM
Well, all this quietness and formalism is fairly recent (second half of the nineteenth century maybe). The fact that opera goers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were socializing during the performances, walking around, being loud, even flirting with the singers on stage is well documented. At the premiere of Beethoven's seventh symphony the audience applauded and requested an encore of the second movement. Even more recently, in the semifinals of the recently ended Queen Elisabeth violin competition, the audience applauded enthusiastically after Tatsuki Narita's second movement of the Ravel sonata.
I have fond memories from about 20 years ago when, as a penniless young college student on tour in Spain, together with a colleague, we took our violins out in the street and played for some money (which we used to buy scores not available in Romania :D). We had to develop a feel for the audience pretty fast. It was so interesting to see what they liked, to play with their emotions, to make them - through our music making - take their wallets out and leave a few coins in our violin case!
During the last century, we placed ourselves as musicians behind a screen. Composers write music with total disregard for the audience (the "dead eyes"), the "big shots" in the performing world expect adulation whether they play well or not because "what does this uneducated bunch know anyway?"
Our concern is no longer to captivate the audience no matter who is listening to us. We play for a thinning elite, not for the average people. There are few artists that would do well in front of a hall full of rowdy American middle school students. As a high school student back in my native Romania I saw this happen once when the greatest Romanian quartet at the time, "Voces" played Debussy in front of high school students with no musical experience, brought to the concert from many of the city's schools. As noisy as they were at the beginning of the performance, about ten minutes into the piece there was complete silence.
Clapping between movements doesn't seem to me such a big deal. I would be more worried of getting only the "courtesy clapping" at the end of a bland performance. Maybe we should descend once again and walk among the people of the Earth if we want our art to survive. Perhaps we need some young lad to cry again: "Look, the king is naked!" in order for us to reevaluate our place within the society.
From Michael Tuchman
Posted on May 31, 2012 at 10:40 PM
I think one exception to this rule is relevant to this audience. After the first movement of a particularly brilliant performance of a great concerto, clapping may be more appropriate in the thrill of the moment than to wait until the end of the piece. True, the story isn't finished, but in some pieces, the first movement is a great story in itself.

Depends on the piece though.

From Royce Faina
Posted on May 31, 2012 at 11:22 PM
I appologize but I just 'have' to; Immagine back in the days when people in the audience had been consuming wine/beer/hard spirits just before a performance? Or what if alcoholic beverages are served/sold just before the performance today? Etiquette is very subjective never objective as people would like to believe since it, like beauty, is in the eyes and heart of the beholder because etiquette will always bend to each person(s)'free will'!
just sayin' :o)

From Adrian Demian
Posted on June 1, 2012 at 2:07 AM
Dear Royce,
I have to admit my limitations. I do not understand your point. I am sure what you wanted to say is very clear in your mind, but I could not make it out at all.
From Adrian Demian
Posted on June 1, 2012 at 2:09 AM
... and, "back in the day" the audience (well, at least the nobility) was consuming the alcohol and the food during the performance, not only before.
I have to retrace the source, but I read about one Prussian king who had a mirror in his private box at the theater so he could watch the show as he was playing cards - which means he was sitting with his back at the stage! Did this bother the composers? They just struggled to write better and better music so the audience would stop everything in awe. It is my firm belief that we are really missing this today, both from the performers and from the composers.
From Momoko Takahashi
Posted on June 1, 2012 at 6:23 AM
Perhaps I did not say it well in my post. I am not saying that we shouldn't clap. I'm not saying that we should. But to say that "classical concert is oppressive" is not very accurate, and that sort of distinction comes from pure ignorance.

People always stratify music, for some reason. I saw many arguments on youtube that basically said "This Mozart is the best, rock music is garbage". Similarly, the article states "classical concert is stuffy and boring, rock concert is cool and free". But "You and I" is a rock piece made into movements, and I did not hear anyone scream or clap in between. And people do clap and scream in between movements, if the particular movement was done with excellent flourish. And I would have been super irritated if some idiot started clapping and hooting in Knebworth 1979.

What the writer could not realise is that the performance probably engaged the audience, but not to the level that demanded standing ovations, cheerings, flower-tossings and clappings of enthusiastic audience. Well, don't blame that on the genre. Blame that on the performer.

From Reynard Hilman
Posted on June 1, 2012 at 6:37 PM
While that Huffington post article probably goes too far, I think I agree with Adrian that it hasn't always been like that and we should re-consider some things we do at classical concert that probably doesn't have to always be that way. I think there are a lot of things that classical music performers can experiment to engage the audience more and make music performing and watching more fun. While there are also obvious stuff that you just should not do, like screaming in the middle of performance, I know it's ok to do that at rock concert but that's because you can't even hear yourself screaming at a rock concert!

It's just common sense stuff, you don't scream or talk loudly at movie theater, you don't scream when someone is giving a speech. So it doesn't make sense to expect that a classical concert has to give the same freedom to the audience as a rock concert to make it more fun. In fact if it's like rock concert then it's not fun at all for most classical music fans or for most people with common sense (just like most sane people wouldn't think it's ok to shout and scream for fun in movie theater).

But I think having a classical performance in a cafe setting where people can chat, drink, come and go would be interesting, I wouldn't mind playing in that kind of environment, I would love to just play on the street where you don't care if people clap in between movement. And I think there should be both aspect in classical performance, one where it's more formal and one in a more relaxed settings.

From Rachel Neville
Posted on June 2, 2012 at 9:16 PM
I did not agree with the Huffington Post piece. Nobody should shout while the music is playing! Those of us that paid good money to go to a concert want to hear the music, not some idiot shouting. Whenever I have been to small clubs to hear folk or jazz, nobody makes a ruckus while the music is playing. I remember a long time ago, I had front row tickets to U2 and everyone just stood on their chairs, letting the music wash over them. No shouting, just listening. It was awesome. For many people that really love music, listening to the music is the main point, not shouting at the performer.

What I would like to see at classical concerts is more information about the piece from the conductor or the soloist. It would be cool to hear what makes the piece special, what makes it difficult. I'd like to hear some of the orchestra talk about it too. Or if a particular instrument is featured in the piece, like the bassoon or something, tell us about it, how does it work. What does it sound like without the orchestra? For people like me that are new to classical music, that kind of info would keep me coming back to concerts. And help forge a connection with audience.

And also, soloists, please tell us what the encores are! I went to a show last month and the cellist did two encores, one I recognized as Bach, and the other I really liked, but I have no idea what it was so I can't go buy a recording of it.

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