Classical concerts: a no-rules approach

September 16, 2015 at 3:48 pm | Posted in music | 1 Comment
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I got all excited when I saw Gillian Moore’s Sinfini piece, Classical etiquette: the new rules. Finally! I thought. Someone arguing that people shouldn’t be keelhauled for sneezing in a quiet bit! Sadly, Moore’s new rules are basically the old ones, with a bit of ‘Calm down, everybody!’ attached.

stfu1Golly, classical music fans like telling each other how to behave*. When you attend a gig, know this: your fellow audience members are looking down on you for all sorts of human failings. Don’t decide you’re too hot in the middle of a piece, and try to take your jumper off; but don’t fall asleep because you’ve had a long day and it’s hot and you don’t dare to take your jumper off, in case you snore. Don’t have a cold, even in the depths of winter, in case you cough; never mind that you paid £50 for your seat and booked your train ticket and accommodation MONTHS ago and have been looking forward to this all year. Do know all the pieces in advance so that you know EXACTLY when it is safe to clap, but don’t follow the score, because that’s showing off. If you’re not sure when to clap, don’t clap until someone else has; but if you DO know where to clap, don’t clap too early, and never shout WOO! because that’s just attention-seeking, and absolutely DON’T stand up to clap, because others might not agree with you that the performance was so terrific it needs a standing ovation. And don’t take your kids, even if you think they might like it, because they might swing their legs in the wrong rhythm, and anyway it’s just smug parenting. And don’t forget to adjust your hearing aid.

I understand all this. I really do. I know that classical music isn’t amplified and you need to shut up in order to hear it properly. I get that performances will differ in subtle ways and you need to pay attention in order to pick these up and enjoy them. But some research suggests that coughing may indicate a lack of engagement, rather than a wilful attempt to spoil everyone else’s fun. Could people be allowed to engage with what’s going on a bit more?

I sometimes think I was born at the wrong time. Mozart-era concerts sound like a lot of fun. Apparently everyone was rowdily engaged, shushing each other in the quiet bits, applauding, yelling ‘da capo!’, chatting and laughing, and quite possibly chucking things if they didn’t approve. People got into fights over their favourite performers. It all sounds right up my street.

When I listen to music at home, I sing along, talk over the bits I don’t find that interesting, crank up the best bits and lie on the carpet. I nudge anyone who’s in the room and go ‘No, listen! I love this bit!’ I’ve been to classical concerts where I wanted to clap and whistle when I recognised the opening bars of my favourite song, like I would at a rock gig.

2 Princelet Street

Iestyn Davies, not singing in my living room, but, you know. Near enough. (Picture by Andrea Liu)

And it’s not all about me. I sometimes feel like we’re missing something else, something bigger, that we could be experiencing if we stopped looking on our fellow concertgoers as an irritation, and started taking notice of them. What would it be like if we tried to enjoy being in a room with a lot of other people, experiencing the music as a group, rather than all sitting in our individual seats feeling aggrieved that the chap next to us is manspreading and the woman in front is so ridiculously tall and trying in vain to pretend that Iestyn Davies is singing to us ALONE in our living room for our personal delight (however brilliant that sounds)? What if we weren’t scared to react to what was going on – if we turned to our neighbours and grinned, got to our feet and moved around, sang along and danced and interacted with each other? Maybe went for a beer in the bits we didn’t like, and worked our way to the front for our favourites?

Ah, you say, knowingly. It’ll never work. Tom Morris came a cropper last year with his no-rules approach to audience engagement at the Bristol Alternative Proms. With no etiquette to stifle them, the audience simply took the policing of other people’s behaviour into their own hands, forcibly ejecting a chap who tried to crowdsurf in the Messiah’s moshpit.

But this stems from the unhappy mixing of people who want to loosen up a bit, and people who don’t. Glyndebourne has separate performances for the under-30s. I think we need Performances for the Under-Disciplined. Then all the people who want to shoulder-poke can go to regular performances and tut loudly at each other’s programme-page-turning, and the rest of us can have some fun. I’ll bring the plonk, if you bring the sarnies.

* It’s not just classical audiences, of course. The ‘STFU’ above is in the Jazz Cafe, and even popular music has its shushers.

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