A knowledgeable audience can make all the difference to a classical concert—just as too many coughs, or bored silence, can spoil things. London may be lucky with its audiences at the moment, but will this remain the case?by Stephen Everson / April 29, 2007 / Leave a comment
A Monday in mid-March, and the Argentinian mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink is giving a lunchtime recital at London’s Wigmore Hall. All the 500-odd seats are full, and several people, none of them young, are standing along the back wall of the hall. Fink begins with some songs by Grieg, works not performed very often, and as she sings, at least two thirds of the audience are following the texts of the songs in the programme. Every few songs, there is the sound of turning pages as the audience follows the programme’s injunction only to turn the page when the song has finished. On two occasions, a sound of muffled coughing is followed by someone’s making a quick, but pretty well silent, exit from the hall into the lobby. Fink herself is on the highest form—technically flawless but expressively free—and at the end of the recital the audience mixes its enthusiastic applause with more than a few cheers.
While Fink is certainly in the top rank of singers, she has not received the kind of star-making publicity enjoyed by Cecilia Bartoli or Renée Fleming. Indeed, it is unlikely that more than a handful of the 2,000-odd people who packed out Fleming’s Barbican concert last autumn would know Fink’s name. Yet through reputation rather than hype, not only is the Wigmore full for her recital, it is filled by an audience that responds to her with silent concentration and with real appreciation of her accomplishment. And that certainly isn’t something to be taken for granted any longer.
It is difficult to overstate how much the nature of an audience can affect the experience of a concert. You may think that this is only a matter of its being quiet. After all, the basic and absolute rule for concert-going must be: just don’t make any noise. A good audience is one you can forget while you concentrate on listening. This is to think of the audience, or the rest of the audience, as an unwelcome necessity. If only you were rich enough to pay the fees, the ideal would be to have Brendel or Pollini playing for you alone.
But to think like this would be a mistake. An audience’s virtues are not merely negative. No one would think that the ideal way of seeing a stand-up comedian would be alone. What you want is to be part of an audience that laughs at the jokes: everyone becomes more responsive together and the chances are that the comedian will become funnier. The principle that experience shared is thereby intensified is one that carries over to the concert hall and the opera house. The difference between a bored or indifferent silence and a silence of focused concentration is, perhaps surprisingly, keen.
Musicians themselves are very aware of this. The Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov, for instance, told me how disappointed he was by the bored silences of the audiences when he first played in England. “As a musician, I feel it when people don’t know anything and they don’t care. Sometimes that does happen and you have to engage with them and hope to give them the energy to understand. Slowly they become yours and the music’s.” The Austrian pianist Till Fellner agrees that a bad audience gets in the way. “It makes it difficult to concentrate. Often, I think, my own concentration can get to the audience, but if this doesn’t happen, if you really try to concentrate and communicate and you still feel they are so noisy and coughing all the time, then it’s sad.” Asked about the audience at the Wigmore Hall, however, he lights up. “Some audiences are very concentrated and educated, and you can feel it, of course, when you play. For me, for instance with difficult programmes of Bach and Kurtág, the Wigmore audience is really amazing.” Does it really make a difference when you’re playing? “Yes.”
The point here is that part of the cultural resources of a city such as London are its audiences—and the plural is important there. It is well known that audiences vary hugely for the various art forms—even at the Barbican there is little crossover between the audiences for the concert hall, the theatres, the cinema and the galleries. But one cannot even properly talk of there being a single classical music audience. For one thing, because London is so large and so cosmopolitan, the audience for a particular concert may have a distinct national character; noticeably more Russian, say, if Maxim Vengerov is playing, or Japanese when Mitsuko Uchida is. More generally, many who regularly attend orchestral concerts at the Festival Hall or the Barbican would never go to hear a string quartet at the Wigmore or the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and vice versa. Many who go to the Royal Opera House to hear productions in the original language would never go to ENO to hear them in English with surtitles (and again, vice versa). Part of the character of an institution lies in the audience it attracts, which in turn helps to determine what kind of programme it can put on.
If the Wigmore’s audience is distinctive within London, it also has a distinctively London audience, and in a revealing way. One singer told me that singing at the Wigmore can be like singing in Vienna, where he is based—in both places, you are aware that the audience is judging you against a whole tradition of lieder singing. The difference, he said, is that at the Wigmore he feels that the audience wants him to succeed, whereas in Vienna the audience will be happy to judge that he is not quite up to scratch. The Wigmore audience, that is, may be informed and critical, but it is also unstuffy and well-meaning.
The worry, although this is perhaps less pressing for the 500-seater Wigmore than it is for London’s other musical institutions, is that it will become harder to sustain the kind of audience that allows classical music to flourish. As knowledge of, and interest in, classical music declines and institutions become increasingly anxious to maintain the size of their audiences, there will be an increasing temptation to market classical music as nothing more than good entertainment for a relaxing night out. If you see going to a concert as little more than an undemanding form of relaxation, however, you are less likely to feel that you can’t chat about the orchestra to the friend you’ve dragged along. Already, at the opera houses and the larger concert halls, the chances are not much more than even of being surrounded by people who are not going to whisper to each other at some point. And it only takes a couple of people to ruin a concert for those around them.
For anyone for whom music is still an important part of life, London remains a satisfying place to live. The range of musical activity at the highest level is as wide as anywhere in the world. If this is to be maintained, institutions will need to build their audiences and attract new people in. The trick is to make music accessible in the right ways without pretending that it can be accessed without thought or concentration.