When a classical music opinion piece begins with “visiting a popular concert hall for the first time…,” you know that people with classical music opinions are going to pipe up. Now, let’s assume that this was not the first ever visit to a concert hall by Richard Dare, the CEO of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the author of the now infamous HuffPo article deploring the rigid protocols of live classical music listening. Daniel Wakin at the Times added his voice to the 400+ heated comments on the thing, letting Bob Spano conclude with the observation that classical music really does require some sitting still and being quiet.
Like many people who don’t quite know the ropes of a classical music concert, Dare rightly points out that the experience is tricky and off-putting to newcomers, and calls for a loosening of the experience. Clap between movements. Clap after a really good solo. Make lots of noise whenever you want, in order to interact with the music instead of just passively listening. He cites performances of yore that were met with people standing on their chairs and applauding, tears and screams in the ovations. He conveniently fails to mention that these reactions happened after the audience had sat quietly through the whole show.
Here’s one suggestion that no one wants to make: instead of loosening the rules, we should enforce them even more.
That’s the reactionary, un-fun way to go, but it’s the only way. A symphony will never be a sporting event. Or a video game, or a TV show with friends. This is music that invites you to listen very carefully. In order to do that best, it helps if you and your neighbors are sitting stock still. I agree that I would love to see more emotional responses to music, but that kind of response only comes from first listening with every fiber of your being.
Let’s take another futzy, serious activity that requires participants to follow a bunch of rules, does not ever guarantee a good experience for the price, takes some time to really “get,” and is a personal experience that is enhanced by quiet and minimal distractions: yoga. Like yoga, music listening is meditative. It also takes a lot of practice to get into. But it has skyrocketed in appeal because it promises a challenge alongside some instant benefits. Not because it has gotten easier and easier to waltz into a class and pick it up right away.
Orchestras should make the case that the concert hall is an island of reflective calm in our busy world, where you can unplug and look inward for a change. Jane Moss has hit on as much with her White Light Festival.
Of course, I’m well aware that even if concert halls tomorrow became a magic place of deep listening – and the especially guilty coughers and candy unwrappers and fidgeters stopped ruining it – it wouldn’t solve all of classical music’s problems. Soloists are still grossly overpaid. Orchestras are mismanaged. And contemporary music continues to fail to expand the canon because premieres have a way of being performed once and never again.
But if instead of posters of divas in ball gowns and smug-looking piano players, presenters advertised the classical music experience with images of blissed-out listeners (perhaps a la lululemon–but minus the libertarianism?), maybe newcomers would fumble into the concert hall seeking refuge, not a roller-coaster. And they would eventually find it.