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.

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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.

I sing on the ACTUAL STAGE and nothing bad happens

July 20, 2015 at 11:03 pm | Posted in barbershop, music | Leave a comment
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At two-thirty, I was already bopping around the kitchen. The White Rosettes don’t perform in public that often, and this was a rare chance to show off: my first sing-out. (In barbershop, we don’t call them ‘concerts’. Pay attention at the back.) I’d been busy learning repertoire so I could hold my own in the second half, when the trainees were going on, and Caroline had lent me her swishy dress and heels, so I looked the part.

I applied foundation for the first time in about twenty years, packed sandwiches and three pairs of tights and put my Chorus Scarf on. Margaret picked me up and I made polite conversation with her friends and tried to act nonchalant.

We arrived at Trinity Church in loads of time, ambushing the lovely tea ladies, who weren’t expecting us until later. (They let us in anyway.) Sharon gave the trainees some makeup direction (‘Slap on loads of blusher, and then someone’ll come round and tell you to put some more on’) and we pouted at the mirror in the ladies’ and sang each other’s parts and decided we really needed to move the audience in there, as the acoustic was so smashing.

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Giving it some beans in rehearsal

Sally summoned us to the stage for a warmup, and we sang Joshua and Shine and a couple of other things with a PROPER PHOTOGRAPHER wobbling on a chair and a few good-natured people clapping encouragingly. A chap kindly moved some chairs so Sally could direct without giving herself a dead arm. There was some last-minute stack rearrangement; I found myself in a cosy little bass enclave with Jane, Kate, Emma and Irene around me. Then everyone raced off to change.

Well, the White Rosettes certainly scrub up nicely. It was a real thrill to see everyone in their sparkly frocks. The trainees snuck into the back of the hall to watch. And, crikey. It sounded amazing. I tried my best not to cry in You Don’t Know Me, what with having mascara on and everything, but no luck. Emma shushed me for shouting WOO! at the end of the first half. I couldn’t help myself. I was just thinking, ‘We should be on the TELLY doing this!’

Trainee excitement levels got cranked right up to 11 in the interval, as we FINALLY got to put our velvet dresses on and struggle with our tights and tiptoe around in our high heels. Last-minute lipgloss application and a bit of jumping up and down, and we were ready.

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Trainees are GO

And it was utterly marvellous. You might not guess from my usual bouncing-around-being-irritating demeanour, but I always used to have sickening performance anxiety, and I was secretly petrified it was still festering away in my unconscious, like something forgotten at the back of the fridge. But I felt great. My voice was steady; I didn’t do anything stupid; I couldn’t stop smiling. Okay, I’ll admit that when Sally came to sing right next to me, I spent three terrified minutes thinking DON’T MUCK IT UP. DON’T MUCK IT UP. SHE CAN HEAR YOU. But the rest of it was brilliant. I had an absolute ball.

The audience loved us, too. I’m not surprised. We do put on a terrific show. There were custom song introductions from various members of the chorus, and a Barbershop Demystifier, and Sally got the whole audience singing in four parts, and tried to recruit most of the front row. We even made a couple of ladies cry. YES! (Barbershop’s so cruel.)

I think I managed to talk sensibly on the way home. It’s all a bit of a blur. I grinned non-stop for the next two days. I felt cradled by this beautiful chorus, supported and encouraged and cheered on. So much generosity, so much heart. And if you have that around you, it’s impossible not to sing it back out.

Why you should become a FIEND

February 19, 2015 at 2:16 pm | Posted in music | 4 Comments
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Members’ booking opened today for Jonas Kaufmann’s gig at the Royal Festival Hall. The programme’s still unconfirmed, so it may be Yodelling The Classics or perhaps an Eartha Kitt retrospective, but frankly, we don’t care. This is the Greatest Living Tenor, and we want IN. Unfortunately, so does everyone else.

Being a Friend, of course, is the way to go. Pay your yearly fee, and get priority booking. The price depends on the venue. Some charge one flat sum for everyone; others propose a scary hierarchy of increasingly exclusive ranks of Friendship, from entry-level, giving you a badge and a t-shirt, up to £HE,LLO.OO, which lets you jump the toilet queue in the interval, say ‘The usual, please, Fiona darling’ to the bar staff, and lick peanut butter from the belly of your favourite performer up to three times a year.

The arts need supporting, of course, and there’s a long tradition of benefaction (if that’s a word). But what about impecunious fans, unable to cough up membership fees for every venue in which our favourites might perform? After all the Inamorati, Friends-With-Benefits, Exes-We’re-Still-On-Good-Terms-With, Slight-Infatuations, Friends-of-Friends, Facebook-Friends and People-We-Nod-To-Uncertainly-In-The-Street have had their share, there may be precious few tickets left for us to scrap over.

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Tension mounts as Joyce DiDonato fans struggle to remember her favourite pizza topping

That’s why I’m proposing a new category of ticket purchaser: the Fiend. Become a Fiend, and book first for all events your favourite is performing in, regardless of venue or price. That’s FIRST. Before EVERYONE else. There’s no joining fee or annual subscription: being a Fiend is entirely free of charge. All you have to do is answer a set of questions, randomly selected from an enormous database, under exam conditions. Examples for Jonas fans are given below:

  1. Jonas was amazed that his Andrea Chénier costumes lacked…
    1. Whalebone corsetry
    2. iPhone pockets
    3. Automatic poppers
  2. Jonas has described learning to use his natural tenor voice as…
    1. Like driving a truck
    2. Like growing a beard
    3. Like waiting for a bus, oh my GOODNESS, totally incredible, you know, how you wait for HOURS and then three come along at once, haha!

(Databases for other stars are still under construction; sample questions can be provided on request. The Iestyn Davies exam, for example, is expected to include advanced matching of Farrow & Ball paint shades, and the practical identification of dog hair on settees.)

The benefits to fans of the Fiend scheme are obvious, but venues will also profit; no longer will they need to employ ushers with long sticks to prod snoring audience members, or devote scant staff resources to fielding 176 phone calls a day from the same person enquiring about returns. And EVERYONE will need to buy a programme. If only to fan themselves with it.

(Thanks to @SecondNorn for the conversation that provoked this, and for her unrivalled JK knowledge.)

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