Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Colloquial Classics: an Oxymoron?

I grew up going to concerts where there was a set protocol. I loved the protocol, and I still love it when I have the opportunity of experiencing it. I feel safe knowing that I can arrive early, pick up a program, read through the program notes, and enjoy the din of people around me doing the same. The actual location doesn't matter: whether the hall is large or small, American or not American, free to the public or expensive, new music or old, the protocol was always the same when I was growing up.

Through my whole childhood and much of my adulthood the concert would begin when the house lights went down and the stage lights went up. I would savor that moment of expectation between audience din and audience quiet that would be broken by applause for the musicians, and then the music. For me there is a separation of the secular and the sacred in these moments. It is the separation of the everyday world and the world of music.

I think of applause a collective way of "playing" back to the musicians. At the same time it serves as a marker between one piece and the next. The occasion between-movement clapping that happens from time to time is something I try best to ignore (and the clapper, I hope, tries best to forget).

I'm speaking in the present tense, because this kind of thing still happens once in a while. It is just happening less and less. Perhaps it is due to cell phones, but smart audiences know by now that they should turn their cell phone ringers off before the beginning of a concert. Signs or reminders in the printed program could accomplish the task of reminding people.

I went to a concert recently where the concert organizer came on stage (to the applause of the audience), introduced himself only by first name, told the audience about the series and how they could contribute to it financially, and how in times when other arts organizations are contracting, this one is expanding.

He asked audience members to turn off their cell phones (and there was a person in the audience who wasn't listening), and told them not to text during the concert. Then he asked the members of the audience to introduce themselves to the people on either side of them by first name. I was lucky. I already knew all my seat neighbors by first name, so I didn't need to participate. I heard people say things like "just like in church." Everybody was jolly. The concert organizer introduced the musicians by first name, and the concert finally began (after ten minutes of talking).

People clapped when the musicians entered. The musicians talked to the audience. Their rapport was fine: they were quite charming and entertaining, actually, but as an audience member I was there to listen to music, not to be entertained. They also addressed the audience (as did the concert organizer) as a collection of novices--people who they imagined had never been to a classical music concert before.

The audience, by the way, was not a collection of novices. I hope that the colloquial nature of this series doesn't insult other regular concert-goers and keep them from going to concerts in the future.

There were no program notes. I love having program notes to read before the concert and after the concert. Perhaps program notes would be considered too stuffy. People also clapped between every single movement of every single piece. I imagine the the non-novices in the audience were bothered by this.

The playing was fine, but the overall experience was far too colloquial for my fuddy-duddy tastes. What would have been a 70-minute program took two hours (there was a 15-minute intermission).

Call me a snob, but I prefer formality in my concerts, whether I am a member of the audience or a member of the performing ensemble.


Anonymous said...

"...as an audience member I was there to listen to music, not to be entertained."

Would you kindly elaborate on the difference between listening to music and being entertained?

I find listening to music entertaining, and therefore do not understand your comment, which seems a distinction without a differnce.

Elaine Fine said...

Listening to music can, of course, be entertaining. If I were to turn on the television to watch a comedy show, I would do it to be entertained. If I were to go to a concert to hear a Beethoven string quartet, I would want to be something more than entertained on a superficial level. I would want to be emotionally moved, perhaps, or I would want to be "let into" the music, or enlightened. I would want to have an experience that went beyond mere amusement.

Erin said...

I know what you mean Elaine, sometimes in trying to make classical music events open to 'everyone', it fails to engage anyone at all. A two-hour concert would stretch anyone's patience though, gosh. I think we're best served by examining very carefully what audience we want to reach and marketing it properly, so that knowledgeable audiences aren't bored and new audiences aren't intimidated.

Personally, I think no programme notes at all is always a bad call - everyone needs a place to start. There are lots of ways to do it in a non-stuffy way: a photocopied sheet with a note from the artists about what they're playing, short paragraphs about each composer, other non-music authors writing about what the music means to them, the conductor describing what's going on in a magazine feature type of piece - all approaches I've used in the past to do it in a different way at the arts centre where I work.

I too take comfort in the norms of concert attendance, but what I've heard from many others not familiar with it is they feel like outsiders for not knowing the rules and it's a reason they avoid attending concerts at all. There's a place for formal and informal concerts I think, if they're clearly described as such.

Max said...

Quote: "If I were to turn on the television to watch a comedy show, I would do it to be entertained. If I were to go to a concert to hear a Beethoven string quartet...I would want to be something more than entertained on a superficial level. I would want to be emotionally moved..."

So...laughter does not provoke emotion? Last time I checked, happiness was an emotion.

There is no set protocol in concerts anymore, and thank heavens for it! Expecting the familiar is the very reason why orchestras in the U.S. are hurting so much to begin with. Board members and benefactors have maned the credibility of an orchestral repertoire so it's up to each person where they go. Thankfully, there's a completely different show for each hall.

And I'm quite certain you and I will be in completely different halls. I much prefer the shows where I don't need to make friends, don't "play back to the musicians" and just sit in my seat and do what I came for: listen to music. I'll let the musicians do the work, that's what I pay them for.

Of course, speaking as a performer, let me say I'll leave the audience alone and let them sit and listen to music while I do the work, that's what they pay me for.

Elaine Fine said...

You are lucky, Max, that you live in a place where you have some element of choice! If I lived in a metropolitan area, I would have choices too. But, unless I drive to another city, I don't.

It is no fun for audience members in a relatively isolated community to feel like they are part of a long-term ever-changing experiment run by people trying to figure out how to hold a concert series that can break even.

Speaking as a performer, I agree with you completely. The main reason for playing a concert is to play music, and to play it as well as possible. It is great when people come and listen.

I do have to disagree with you concerning laughter. Laughter, in and of itself, (particularly in response to something on television) does not automatically provoke happiness.

Erin, your ideas about unstuffing are refreshing, and your baby is adorable.

David Guion said...

I, too, grew up with and enjoy the familiar rituals of the classical music concert, but I'm coming to the conclusion that they are unsustainable, simply because so many people who might well enjoy the music feel excluded by them. I think we need to find a way to loosen up. It sounds like the concert you describe demonstrates one way not to do it, but I sincerely hope that "colloquial classics" is not an oxymoron. BTW, it's odd that I should be reading this post today. I just drafted a blog post on concert programing and ritual that will be up some time tomorrow (2/5)

Elaine Fine said...

I look forward to reading your take on concert programming on your blog soon, David.

Eric Edberg said...

As I wrote about on my blog recently, in response to your post, conversational or "colloquial" concerts are hard to pull off, without alienating the traditional audience. The last two concerts I attended that had a lot of talking did have some element of condescension, one more than the other. Neither one had been organized taking the amount of of time the talking would take into account, and in neither was the talking well-planned.

The big challenge is to make concerts accessible to newcomers without making them off-putting to the regulars. I think it's going to end up with something like different denominations/cultures within a religion. Those who like formal concerts will support a decreasing number of them. New forms of presentation are evolving, meanwhile.

It's so important not to "talk down" to the audience. But explaining basic details for newcomers may feel off-putting to those steeped in classical culture. There are ways to make it work. And as we performers and presenters experiment, we need to take all this into account, and especially to plan and rehearse our remarks.

Caroline said...

Well said, Elaine. This is such a good piece of writing. I'm with you. I really like the formal structure that informs a classical music concert anywhere. For me concert protocol is like the correct waltz step. The very formal quality of it adds to the thrill and the romance.

I would have been really quite peeved by the goings-on at the concert in question.

PS: You have some really heavy-duty good writers in your reading section.