21 July 2018

Concert Behaviour - Embracing Change

Last weekend my critic colleagues in London were much exercised by the issue of the audience applauding between the movements of Holst's Planets at the First Night of the Proms.  I can't see what the fuss was all about; Holst never intended his Planets as a single, continuous work - indeed, at its first performance it was not even presented in its entirety - and there is no artistic reason why the audience should not regard each individual piece as a stand-alone concert work, and respond accordingly. 

On a wider level, I have no issues at all with audiences applauding between movements or at breaks in a work.  I wouldn’t mind were audiences to revert to the 19th century habit of stopping a performance mid-way to express their admiration for a particular moment (as C├ęsar Franck famously did when sitting in the audience of a performance of his own Symphony in D minor) or, as in opera, a particular feat from a singer. 

What is the value of applause if it is not spontaneous? The regimented and polite clapping at a pre-ordained point some time after the end of a work seems entirely false and without purpose.   I know, however, that there are those who disagree with me on this point, and I certainly once considered the complete musical entity as sacrosanct.  Ageing and understanding have brought about not just increasing tolerance but a fundamental shift in my perception of the purpose of a live concert.

Singapore audiences have long been cowed into submissive silence by the concert police who "sh" loudly and stare daggers in the direction of whichever poor soul has deigned to show approval of a performance when they themselves have not.  Annoyingly, even performers have taken it upon themselves to stifle applause and thereby shame the audience into silence.  At last night’s Singapore Symphony Orchestra season-opener, for example, after a singularly lovely bit of saxophone playing from Daniel Gelok in "The Old Castle" from Pictures at an Exhibition, some in the audience (led, it must be said, by some of the orchestra themselves) broke into spontaneous applause to register their approval at what was undoubtedly a wondrous musical moment.  Conductor Lan Shui was having none of it, and effectively stifled their joy by launching precipitously into the next (unrelated) section of Ravel's orchestration of the piece.

I noticed a few in the audience shaking their heads with dismay that other audience members had shown such ignorance as to register their approval of a lovely bit of saxophone playing.  The issue is certainly a divisive one, and I accept that there are some who like their concerts delivered in absolute silence while others prefer to enjoy the atmosphere of sharing a musical treat (or otherwise) with others, even if those others do not always behave as we would wish them to.

My tolerance, however, is sorely tested by a growing and immensely irritating practice prevalent in Singapore concerts not from the audience, but by concert hall management.  Auditorium stewards have been instructed, it would seem, to stop photography by members of the audience at any cost. 

At the slightest hint that a camera or mobile phone is being pointed in the general direction of the stage, eagle-eyed stewards rush down the aisles, clamber over seats, make noisy protests and generally disrupt the concert in a way no humble photographer or applauder ever does.   Those unfortunate enough to be seated near to where a steward is stationed will know that they are continually scanning the audience for signs of photographic intent, and often radio to their colleagues giving the location of a potential miscreant. 

I’ve given up ever expecting to enjoy a concert at Victoria Concert Hall because of the aggressive anti-photography campaign which takes precedence over the music.  But last night at the Esplanade it was downright embarrassing.  A children's choir was on stage and proud parents keen to preserve the moment in the family archives, found themselves shamed and embarrassed by highly visible remonstrations from stewards.  Worse still was the closing concert of last month’s Singapore Performers’ Festival when, with dozens of children appearing on stage to present the fruits of their hard-earned labours (and the results of their parents’ financial sacrifices), cameras and phones were primed, only to be forced down again by over-zealous stewards.  A friend had one steward actually interrupting a performance to ask him to tell someone along the row to put their phone away. 

It is certainly hugely annoying when some selfish oaf starts clicking away during a concert; but satisfying one's own desires with no regard for others seems to be part of the Singaporean DNA, so we should not be surprised when it happens.  And the concert hall authorities themselves positively encourage concert-goers to leave their phones switched on during concerts.  So they can hardly complain when those phones’ camera and messaging functions are employed. 

What is so wrong about taking photographs of musicians in action?  After all, a concert is as much a visual as an aural experience, and in presenting themselves on stage, musicians are implicitly accepting that they are the centre of attraction, with all that that entails.  Flash photography can be distracting, but does a simple non-flash photograph really need to be stamped out by such vigorous and aggressive stewarding?  If it is that important that photographs are not taken, then it is a simple matter to ban photo-taking equipment at the door of the hall; after all, in Singapore (as in London) concert-goers have to go through a security screening during which such equipment could be identified and confiscated.  I’d far rather have someone taking a photo beside me, than have a steward rushing up and down the aisle signalling frantically to all and sundry.  And I’d far rather have someone applauding enthusiastically when I don’t than feel obliged to join in the applause at the end when nothing on stage has warranted it.

Applause, photographs…issues which reflect a fundamental change in what concerts are all about, and a change which many are loathe to accept.  There was a time when we needed to listen to music in silence and without interruption.  But things have changed.  If we want silence around us and no distraction, we have recourse to music in whatever environment we wish, thanks to recording technologies.  A live concert is no longer the only venue for accessing music.  The function of concerts has changed.  Now concerts are social occasions, where we share the experience of music with others.  As with soccer matches or cinema presentations, we have to accept that in sharing socially, we open ourselves up to exposure to behaviours we ourselves would not do, but to which we cannot object since there are no doubt aspects of our own behaviour which irritate others.

Let’s stop trying to impose our particular ethics on concert audiences, and accept that if others are drawn into hear the music, they should be allowed to do so on their own terms.  Most of us professionals and dedicated music lovers have the opportunity to access the music we want where we want it and how we want it; we should not deny the pleasure to others who, perhaps, are less well versed in the traditions of concert etiquette than us.

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