Are there any basic rules audiences should follow when attending a concert of classical music? Most of us would say that there were, suggesting that a fundamental prerequisite for public listening was silence and that correct etiquette centred around allowing others to experience that silence. Coughing, talking, applause, these all seem to figure largely in discussions about concert etiquette, but is there a hard and fast set of rules which can be drawn up and, in any case, is it appropriate to impose a code of behaviour on concert audiences?
When the Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS (aka Petronas Philharmonic Hall) opened in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 it was decided that, as there was absolutely no tradition of attending classical music concerts in Malaysia, it would be helpful to give some guidelines to the audience so that they would know what to expect and not feel awkward. Preliminary surveys showed that the thing which worried most people was not how they should behave but what they should wear, so a set of dress code guidelines was drawn up. It all seemed very sensible to me - after all, people expected dress codes when they went to Genting for the casino or when they attended formal functions – and the dress code DFP produced was quite reasonable; no slippers, shorts, jeans or vests, no exposed armpits, hairy knees or tattooed forearms. Men had to wear long-sleeve batik shirts (customary formal attire in Malaysia) or jackets.
But we all forgot the one thing about Malaysians. They resent rules and regulations, especially when those rules and regulations are enforced. Malaysia is one of the few countries I know where the population is positively proud of their lawlessness and where the expat population will often tell you that the reason they choose to remain there is because laws are so "relaxed" and "flexible". I have stood at the entrance to the concert hall more times than I can remember listening to extremely irate patrons demanding the dress code be overruled in their unique case; a respectable father white with anger as his teenage daughter, in cut-off jeans and wearing a tee-shirt with the inscription "FCUK" (as if nobody has the intelligence to work out that simple anagram), was refused entry, pointing out that "She wears that to school with no problem"; an Australian back-packer, complete with shorts, singlet and slippers screaming that "I am a professional singer at the Sydney Opera House where we don't care what you wear"; and, most astonishingly, a girl in micro-shorts and a vest which barely covered the nipples, proclaiming that "I wear this to concerts in London and nobody complains" (male members of London audiences would certainly not have complained, but I am surprised that she had not long since succumbed to hypothermia).
So heated and numerous were the complaints about the dress code that, when it was subsequently suggested we issue guidelines on such matters as applause, coughing, sweet-unwrapping and mobile phone usage in the concert hall, the plan was quietly dropped for fear of yet another public torrent of abuse. It often worries me that basic guidelines for concert etiquette are not generally issued in Malaysia, but they are in both Singapore and Hong Kong and it doesn't seem to improve matters one iota.
I must confess straight away to being a traditionalist. Brought up well by respectable parents, I could no more attend a concert in jeans and a tee shirt than I could stand at a road junction and bare my bottom to passing motorists (a practice I remember as being quite common when I lived in North Wales). My feeling is that the musicians have sacrificed time and effort to be there, have spent years of study and devotion to their art, the composer has sweated blood and tears over his music; surely the least we can do is show our respect by taking a little effort over personal grooming? In most of Europe it is still rare for people to turn up to formal concerts in anything less than a collar and tie or a business skirt and full-sleeve jacket; concert-going is seen as something you make an effort to do rather than something you just happen upon by accident. I still blush for shame when I recall the time I was in Singapore at lunchtime, walked past the Victoria Hall and, realising that there was an organ recital on, walked in off the street in my polo shirt and jeans. Nobody complained, but when I then went off to the Indonesian Embassy to get my visa for a forthcoming visit, I was turned away because of my attire; "We have a dress code here", was the security guard's curt comment, and I was duly chastened. If a clerk yielding a rubber stamp in a daily chore can demand a certain etiquette in attire, surely a musician, years' in the training and hours in the pre-concert practising, can demand the same? Yet Singaporeans make a boast of being able to turn up to concerts looking as if they have just been dragged through the sewers. "We mustn't discourage people coming to concerts", is the clarion cry. To which I answer, "Yes, we must…if those people are going to spoil the enjoyment of others".
And they do. Chang Tou Liang reported in the Straits Times this week of a bevy of belligerent youths who disrupted an SSO concert with their crass behaviour. Good for him. Good, too, for those many critics who have, over the years, been outspoken in their criticism of Singaporean concert audiences, their incessant chatter, the ringing of mobile phones, the bawling babies and the unrestrained coughing. Yet don't any of them see the link between bad behaviour and dress? If you have taken the effort to dress formally, if you have had to take time out to prepare yourself physically for a concert, might you not also be aware that it is not just another thing to do, that a certain mental preparation is also in order? How can anyone be expected to behave properly at a concert if they are encouraged to treat it as nothing more than stepping into a supermarket?
But there again, what is proper behaviour at a concert? I remember during my years in the Proms arena the horrified looks and the choruses of "sh" (possibly the most disruptive noise in any concert hall) whenever the seated audience applauded between the movements of a symphony or a concerto. I remember a radio debate in which it was suggested that Proms audiences were getting dumber because of their inappropriate behaviour; particularly their applauding "at the wrong times". It barely warrants a mention now, and the last time I attended a concert at DFP in Kuala Lumpur, the ushers even opened the doors and allowed large numbers of latecomers to enter the auditorium between the first and second movements of a symphony.
Is it so wrong to recognise a break between movements? I always chuckle when people complain about applause after the first movement of a Chopin Piano Concerto since Chopin never for a moment expected anything else. He composed in the full knowledge that not just applause but entire pieces of music would be interspersed between the first and second movements of his concertos, and the idea that the first movement should be met with silence would have struck horror into his sickly heart. (Frankly, I don't see how anyone can sit through all three movements of the over-sugared candy which constitutes a Chopin Piano Concerto without doing something physical in the middle, but that's just my anti-Chopin prejudice creeping in.) Add to that the countless stories we have of the premières of Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven symphonies, where the applause was so enthusiastic after a movement that it had to be repeated before the symphony could continue. I don't suppose any of those three great Viennese masters stood up and motioned the audience to silence, let alone burst out in a welter of "sh". A lot of music simply wasn't conceived to be listened to in rapt silence for the entire duration of three or four movements, so why shouldn't audiences show their appreciation during a particularly impressive performance?
As a performer and as a listener, however, I have to confess that I am distracted by applause between movements and earnestly wish it wasn't there. I do like to follow the musical thread as it runs through the contrasting movements, and in some instances (such as after the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony) intervening applause is disastrous. But can I impose on others my personal preferences under the guise of concert etiquette? If we allow people to come to concerts dressed as they wish, we cannot then turn round and start imposing rules about other aspects of behaviour.
Un-muffled coughing (a habit Asians relish despite the SARS and Bird Flu epidemics), dropping hefty objects on to the floor, answering or sending calls or texts on the phone, and bringing along individually wrapped sweets to open during soft passages, all of these should be banned outright from concert halls, and while I don't think many would argue with that, somehow everybody does one or more of those disgusting things during a concert. How much more difficult it is to draw up guidelines about applause. Can we insert into concert programmes suggestions for where to applause in each work; "You may applause if you wish after the first movement of the Chopin, but applause must be withheld until the end of the Tchaikovsky"? That's an obvious non-starter; and if anyone is in any doubt about this, a recent Singapore Symphony concert proves the point. It was announced from the stage that a passage from Brahms's German Requiem would be performed in memory of a recently deceased figure in the country's musical life and that, out of respect, the audience should refrain from applause. I knew then that this was an invitation to disaster, and so it turned out to be. When a few poor souls forgot themselves to the extent that their hands began to draw together, a chorus of utterly disrespectful "sh..s" resounded around the hall. Frankly, applause would have been far more respectful to the memory of one of Singapore's great musical figures than that shambles, and I was, not for the first time, left wondering why it was that some people have such a problem with applause.
When a double bassist collapsed on stage in an MPO concert and the performance had to be stopped while his body was carried off (no easy task when you see the size of the average MPO bassist), I broke into spontaneous applause when, before reaching the wings, the bassist staggered to his feet and gave a shy wave to the assembled throng. People around me looked askance before they joined in awkwardly, yet I was registering my gratitude that it was last night's booze rather than that day's heart failure that had felled a great and much loved musician, and that the conductor had shown such presence of mind as to stop the performance and walk off stage while the interruption was cleared up. More than that, the applause was in recognition of the huge physical strain put on orchestral musicians and which an audience rarely gets a chance to acknowledge. Perhaps we don't recognise the work of orchestral musicians as much as we should through spontaneous applause.
If we treat the concert-going experience as being on a par with a trip to the supermarket, then we should treat musicians with the same disregard as we do the staff at the checkout (and there hangs another moral issue; my father unfailingly shows his respect to supermarket check-out staff by chatting with them, thereby causing extensive queues of irate customers to build up behind him). But if we treat a concert as something special, something unique and something worth taking an effort over, why should we start complaining when people show their appreciation of what's going on, even if it does cause some passing annoyance to others.