25 January 2012

Audience Responsibilities

Writing to the Ask Dr Marc column on the MPO website to praise a concert she had attended, a correspondent used the wonderful phrase; “It was a privilege to participate in this concert as a member of the audience”.
How I wish everyone in an audience saw their role as participants rather than mere spectators.  An audience is essential to any live performance. Every musician will tell you that they are conscious of an audience’s mood, and react accordingly.  An audience can lift a performance, and they can destroy it.  The sad thing is audience members too often shirk, or simply do not appreciate, their participatory role in a performance.

The result of this is an uncomfortable experience, not so much for the musicians on stage, as for those members of the audience who do appreciate what their obligations are.  A ringing mobile phone, a flashing camera, an illuminated blue screen from an incoming (or, worse still, outgoing) message are the most obvious audience solecisms, but let’s not forget the nasty habit, endemic in south east Asia, of loud, unmuffled coughing, as well as the noises of crumpling sweet papers and hard-heeled shoes on wooden floors which have become almost de rigueur in the concert hall. 
And then there is, of course, the untimely applause.

“I don’t go to classical music concerts since I don’t want to make a fool of myself by applauding at the wrong moment”, is a common plaint.  While I would argue that for applause to have any validity it must be an instinctive response rather than a prepared moment so cannot be untimely, it is a fact that some people either applaud unthinkingly or are so adamant that others should not applaud at certain times, they will wreck the whole thing by angrily turning round and uttering that loudest of all sibilants, “Shhh!”.
The solution to all these problems comes by audience members realising they have certain obligations as participants.  There is no need to spend the hours of preparation the musicians on stage undergo – although I know many conscientious concert-goers who listen to recordings and read scores of the music before they hear it in the concert hall – but some preparation is vital if the audience member is not going to spoil the performance.  I detest that the habit of turning up to a concert as if by accident, bursting into the hall at the last minute, looking as if you have just finished a day cleaning the sewers, and torn between finishing a meal and continuing a phone conversation.  A responsible member of the audience turns up in advance to prepare. 

Audience preparation includes not just getting into a mental state whereby you can concentrate wholly on what is being performed, but also getting to know what it is you are going to hear.  Good concert halls and orchestras employ professionals to write concert programme notes which are intended for that express purpose.  A proper concert note writer knows both the music and the audience, and knows what is needed - no point making comments about a particular theme from The Planets being an English hymn to an audience of Malay Muslims, for example.  By reading the concert notes in the run up to a concert audiences members know not only what to expect, but when to applaud and when to keep silent.   My notes, for example, when talking of a Chopin Concerto mention that the composer originally wrote it in the full knowledge that other works would intervene between the first and second movements, so applause at that point is wholly justified.  On the other hand, this is a comment I invariably include in my note for Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony ; “Audiences who understandably burst into spontaneous applause after the exciting 3rd movement miss one of the Symphony’s most dramatic moments; indeed one of the most amazing twists of mood in all music.  Even as the echoes of the triumphant march die away, the 4th movement’s grief-stricken opening pours out of the violins like a flood of tears.”  Read that, and you won’t commit the solecism of mis-timed applause.

One would think that I am chasing an impossible dream in expecting audiences to prepare thoroughly for a concert, but I have experienced it.  And moreover, I have experienced it in south East Asia where audiences are more badly behaved and irresponsible than most.

Attending the glorious “Dreams and Reality” festival at the National Museum of Singapore last weekend, I was amazed at just how wonderful the audience was.  Not a phone, not a message, not a cough, not a sweet-wrapper, not even a fidget (and there were some quite young children there too).  True, an Indian man in the front row appeared to fall asleep, but who can blame him in a programme of intensely delivered Impressionism?  Why was this audience so good? 

Perhaps it was Albert Tiu’s playing which had them literally mesmerized.  He does have a solid and enthusiastic fan club in Singapore and he is, unquestionably, a wonderfully precise, clean and polished performer, even on a piano which has given up all hope of producing a decent sound in its bottom two octaves.  I did find his playing a little too intense and introspective, and it certainly lacked the light touch; he played that ridiculous version of The Swan by Godowsky, a piece I usually think of as The Swan in a Blizzard, but, sitting almost on top of the piano which had its entire lid removed, it came across more as Swan in a Hailstorm.  Not a flicker of a smile or any hint that he took the work anything other than deadly seriously.  Come off it.  Godowsky was having a mega-joke here!  So I’m not sure that it was this which had cowed the audience into silence.

Perhaps it was having the recital in a museum, where one instinctively talks in hushed whispers.  Yet, as a student at Cardiff, I attended weekly term-time chamber recital in the National Museum of Wales, and I don’t recall especially good audience behaviour in that environment. 

Was it that the gallery was housing some great works of art which, by their very presence, plunged those there into an awed silence?  My mother, working at the heart of the British government during the Second World War, used to tell me how she would walk across Trafalgar Square every Monday lunchtime from her office in Admiralty Arch to hear the lunch time recital (usually given by Myra Hess) given at the National Gallery.  Admittedly the greatest works of art had been locked away in caves in the north Wales mountains for the duration of the War, but there were still plenty on show, I gather.  My mother tells how the audience would eat their lunch while Dame Myra strutted her stuff, so it doesn’t sound as if they were particularly a well-behaved lot.

No, I am sure the answer lies in the fact that the audience in Singapore all came early and progressed leisurely through the gallery to the recital hall.  During that time they were able to get mentally prepared while, once seated (and I noticed no latecomers except for Tiu himself – and he was allowed to turn up late) they were able to absorb all they needed to know from the outstanding programme issued for the Festival.

The key must lie in preparation and if more people took the trouble to prepare, concerts would be more enjoyable for all of us.

1 comment:

  1. The best audiences are at concerts where the audience "wants to be there". The smaller the audience, the better the behaviour, and that is because those who attend for reasons other than the music are conspicuously absent.

    The worst audiences are at those "celebrity" concerts where a corporate sponsor has bought a whole bloc of tickets and distributed to all and sundry. The people who turn up invariably do so not for the music but for the company, and that's when all the trouble starts.