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…