Just read Richard Dare’s great piece in the Huff Post, ‘The Awfulness of Classical Music Concerts’. Oh yes. Oh yes indeed.
Never have I seen it demonstrated so clearly as at the concert I went to on Monday night. The Sydney Opera House Concert Hall was packed out, which is always great to see. And I’ll wager that well over 90% paid for their tickets too, which means not only that the money is coming in to support the music, but that the audience value what they’re about to hear. Even more encouraging, this was a concert of ‘new’ music. OK, so it was being played by rockstars, and there was a drumkit, keyboards, lights and some funky numbers, but it was a two hour concert, full of through-composed, multilayered instrumentals with nary a three minute 120 bpm track to be heard.
What really made me stop and think, however, was the first half, which was given over to the Orava String Quartet playing works by each of the three main artists. They were introduced by Bryce Dessner (guitarist of ‘The National’), who told us all to give them our support because they’d been working hard and done a great job.
OK. You asked us to be nice. We will. We were. But you didn’t make it easy.
The quartet was set up in a little well of light at the front of the stage. There was lots of stuff behind them. In fact, they had to pick their way through it to get to their performance space. Awkward. They also had to fiddle around a bit with their pick-ups. Um. Waiting. And while they did so they didn’t give us any kind of update. “Sorry folks, the arts are so impoverished we have to set up our own microphones,” or even, “Sorry, I’m a klutz”. In fact, they hardly made eye contact with the audience, and it started to feel like they were pretending we weren’t there.
Then they played. Dessner had given us a heads up on what they were playing, but hadn’t mentioned that the first piece stopped and started. The technical term is ‘movements’, I gather. So when the first movement finished and we clapped, the musicians barely acknowledged the audience. As the work went on, with more of these odd breaks, it became more and more awkward. “If we ignore them, they’ll stop clapping and we can get on with the music…” The music itself was pretty good – a bit owlish, a bit cerebral but worth a listen. But the feeling of disorientation was quite alienating and the lack of audience connection made it really difficult.
The second two works were more boppy and thrashy and generally louder, and didn’t stop and start, except when the first violin stopped to fiddle with his strings. I think it’s called tuning. But we all liked the boppy thrashiness and clapped lots.
After the third piece they all stood up and bowed a bit and smiled and then disentangled their instruments and scampered off. Then it was time for a drink.
Now, of all people, I am totally complicit in the whole classical music recital scam. I don’t know how many concerts I’ve sat in, silently, no fidgeting, glaring at program rustlers and hummers. I’ve rolled my eyes and whispered “peasants!” to my erudite companion when someone claps between movements. But it’s wrong. It’s all got to stop, it’s stupid.
Isn’t performing about communication? Isn’t the audience a crucial part of the whole experience? If it is, then the tradition of performers who don’t communicate and don’t acknowledge the audience are in danger of being replaced by a damn good sound system. At least then you can be sure the notes will be right.
The second half of the concert was Planetarium, a sixty minute plus song cycle about our solar system, composed (if you like) by Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly and Sufjan Stevens in a collaborative project commissioned by all sorts of high culture peeps including the Sydney Opera House. It was fab. We all clapped a lot. But more to the point, when Muhly made glib comments about how they hadn’t quite sussed out the beginning of one piece, or when Stevens apologised for taking so long to get the right buttons on his digital box of tricks pushed, we all grinned and settled back contentedly. And then we listened no less intently for the interruption.
I think we’ve got mixed up on this classical stoush somewhere along the way. As Dare says, Mozart and Beethoven wouldn’t recognise the way we do concerts these days. Yes, there are times when you don’t want to break the spell between movements and, by all means, tell the audience to just hold their breath for that moment. They’ll be glad to help out. And yes, some music – especially sacred music – engenders a more reverential mode of listening than others. And some needs more brainpower than others. But it still has to be a performance, a collaboration between the audience and the stage.
Otherwise, what’s the point?