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…