The opening night concert of the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington was an exhilarating celebration of music and talent, complete with applause between movements of String Quartets by Beethoven and Mozart. Copyrighted photo by Pablo Alcala for the Herald-Leader and Kentucky.com.
As you approach the black crepe paper birthday, you find yourself developing a firm idea of what you believe and why you believe it.
In my case, one of the things I’ve been solidifying my views on is the classical concertgoing experience.
Most of you know there are widely accepted conventions about attending a classical concert: dress up, clap only at the correct times, and stay seated until the concert comes to a complete stop. Over the several decades I've been attending classical performances, my view has evolved from periods of embracing tradition to rebelling against it. Now, I find myself somewhere in the middle, but at least I know why I am there.
Let me get the most potentially controversial one out of the way first:
Clapping: The protocol is that you do not clap during a full performance of a multi-movement piece, like a symphony or concerto, until the work is completely finished. The logic is that applause breaks the audience and the musicians’ concentration.
This is the classical concert convention I would most like to see drop kicked back to the 19th Century.
It’s not like the tradition has been around for that long. It actually started in the 19th and 20th centuries. Rationale includes that the protocol came with the advent of recordings, on which there usually is no applause, and by the imperious pronouncements of a few maestros. But often the experience is more of a distractingly awkward moment.
You only had to be in the Singletary Center for the Arts concert hall on Sept. 14 to see how unnatural this is. John Nakamatsu and the Lexington Philharmonic delivered a stirring first movement of Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, ending it with a tight, powerful flourish that screamed, "Applaud me!" But last weekend, it was as quiet as a morgue. And that's what some arcane rules of orchestral concert going make classical performances feel like. A much more natural evening was the first night of the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington in August, when an inspired and/or uninitiated audience applauded every movement Nathan Cole and his ensemble played, never waiting until the very end. It felt like a celebration of music and talent. Maybe symphonic music should take a cue from opera about sitting on your hands. There, every huge number receives ovations and cheers. At Kentucky Opera's Turandot a few weeks ago, I sat next to a delightful gentleman who cheered big numbers with whoops like he was in a football stadium. It was a blast.
And you know what? If classical presenters want to attract younger audiences and keep the form alive, they need to convince them that having a great time at a concert is possible. But the rules and nasty glares at those who break them are a surefire way to kill the party. Let’s save the standing O’s until a work is complete, but a healthy ovation for 15 minutes of exquisitely played music will not destroy the experience.
Attire: I've gone through phases where I thought everyone should dress up to rebellious periods of sticking to denim for performances.
Wear what you want.
I tend to like dressing up. But if I decide I'll be most comfy in jeans and Chucks, that should not bother anyone else, anymore than someone’s polyester plaid jacket circa 1976 should bother me. We're there to see and hear the orchestra, not each other.
Keep your seat: This is actually the place where I'm going to
lean back to tradition. The same Phil concert I was writing about
earlier included an encore by Nakamatsu. Right as he was gently easing
into it, a woman in front of me got up and clack, clack, clacked her
high heels down the aisle to the door. And then, a few minutes later —
clack, clack, clack — she came back! That and people popping up
mid-movement in the second row are disturbing and do impact the
audience's enjoyment of the work.
If anything, I sort of wish classical music’s tradition would bleed over to movies, where audiences seem to have no qualms about moving around, even at the most tense, key moments.
Incidentals: Forgive your neighbor for sneezing — how good are you at stifling one? Letting a cell phone ring in a concert or movie is borderline unforgivable. Most venues remind you to put them on silent before the show starts, and even the cheapest models have a vibrating ringer now, if you need to keep it on in case of emergency.
Classical music can be a great experience, and like much pop, it is best experienced live. Audiences need to be considerate, but presenters and longtime concertgoers also need to keep up with a the times. This is a much more expressive and individualistic culture than 50 to 100 years ago, when orchestral music was a bigger part of the soundtrack of society. Keeping the live form under a blanket of arcane rules and traditions will only ensure it becomes the relic it sometimes already feels like.