There is a welcome move to challenge the hallowed conventions of classical concerts. But change must be carefully negotiatedby Martin Kettle / March 19, 2010 / Leave a comment
Franz Liszt during a recital in Berlin in the 1840s
How to reinvent the classical music concert for modern times, the subject of Alex Ross’s Royal Philharmonic Society lecture in March, is a question that is easier to ask than to answer. Ross is certainly not the first to pose the question, though in the light of his fame as the New Yorker’s classical music writer and his book, The Rest is Noise (2008), he has succeeded in focusing more attention on the issue than anyone else in recent times.
Unsurprisingly, the future of the concert was also a question which the Bolsheviks asked nearly a century ago. There is a nice anecdote on this subject in the memoirs of the German conductor Oskar Fried, who in 1922 became the first foreign conductor to appear in the Soviet Union following the revolution. Lenin himself met Fried at the station, where the anxious conductor asked if it would be appropriate to appear on the podium in a tailcoat. Lenin, after much thought, replied that a conductor should never appear worse dressed before an audience of workers than before an audience of the bourgeoisie.
It seems even revolutionaries find it hard to overthrow the habits of the concert hall. Nevertheless, as Ross pointed out, while these habits may be deeply ingrained, the tics of today have not always existed. Male orchestra players have not always worn white tie and tails. Concert-hall lighting has not been as bright as it normally is in our era. Orchestral musicians and recitalists have not always played sitting down or with as little direct engagement with the audience as today.
Audiences, in turn, have not always behaved as they do now. Ross asked why audiences no longer applaud at the end of individual movements, as they seem to have done in the past and as some compositions—the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, to take Ross’s example—appear to demand? Why would modern audiences never applaud in the middle of a movement, as a jazz audience would do after a solo, or as audiences in Mozart’s day appear to have done when presented with striking musical effect? At what point and why did the habit of applauding in the middle of operas part company from the increasingly solemn rituals of the concert hall—what Ross calls the Brucknerising of the classical repertoire?
This Brucknerising, which requires an audience to be silent at all times and which frames every concert work as a devotional object requiring a response of awestruck contemplation, is certainly the default mode of most modern concerts. Yet as a questioner after Ross’s lecture observed, when the pianist Krystian Zimerman gave a Chopin recital in London in February, the audience applauded after the first movement of the B-flat minor sonata and Zimerman acknowledged the applause with a smile and a small bow. Then, when the audience failed to applaud after the second movement, he seemed to display good-natured disappointment.
Audience behaviour varies subtly in many ways, not just in applause. Different venues produce different atmospheres. Standing ovations are more common in the US than in Europe, talking more common in Paris than London. Stamping and rhythmical clapping quite often break out in encores, but rarely in the advertised programme. Booing is not uncommon in opera houses, and almost de rigueur in Germany, but I have never heard any expression of disapproval in the concert hall. At the very first concert I attended as a child, the audience in Leeds town hall stood up to greet the entrance of the octogenarian Thomas Beecham. So at my next concert I was surprised when the audience remained seated for the conductor.
Some performers have tried to innovate. Roger Norrington and Mark Elder talk to their audiences about the music they are about to conduct. Daniel Barenboim did the same during one of his recent London concerts. Elder is on record as wanting to change orchestral dress codes. Esa-Pekka Salonen favours lower lighting. The authenticity movement has revived the idea of orchestras and chamber groups playing standing up, and John Eliot Gardiner has even had his orchestras do so in Brahms symphonies. Early music groups sway more than traditional orchestras, as some German orchestras have always done. Vladimir Jurowski has experimented with concerts in which the audience can come and go and even enjoy a drink.
Ross is right to be positive about such experiments. Yet no one would want performance life shorn of all conventions—least of all the convention of concentrating. The reinvention of concert life will only evolve through a voluntary negotiated dialectic between venues, audiences and performers. Change can’t be legislated. But we could do with a bit more of it, all the same.