Classical Concert Etiquette: A Guide

In response to yet another bad news day for classical music audiences, our excellent Chief Executive Matthew Swann has been on the case, weighing up the goods and the bads of concert etiquette…

There’s been a bit of toing and froing this week (and arguably for the past few hundred years) about audience behaviour and etiquette at classical music concerts. A friend of Gillian Moore’s, Head of Music at the Southbank Centre, was poked in the shoulder and then given short shrift by a fellow concert goer at a classical concert for moving her head in time to the music. The very thought! Moving to music!

In response, the writer behind Accidento Bizarro blog penned this response, saying that classical audiences all just need to calm down and loosen up.

In all seriousness, Gillian’s berating party sounds like they were just being rude and I’m in complete sympathy with her friend who found themselves unnecessarily and unfairly humiliated by misplaced ire. I’m also glad that Gillian’s patience finally snapped and she gave the berater such an excellent response, reminding them that if she and her friend had been first-time concert-goers that was yet more people lost to classical music.

Ultimately I think that Accidento and Gillian are kind of arguing the same point, but it got me thinking about some of my more extreme audience experiences – both as a promoter/producer and as a fellow audience member, and how we might deal with the wider question, in advance of our first CLoSer of the season next week.

I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve been to a huge variety of performances, from the formality of Glyndebourne to the semi-organised chaos of Non-classical at La Scala, which while all falling under the loose title of classical music (and one jazz example, following Accidento’s lead) are incredibly diverse in their nature.

First, some of the weirder audience experiences I’ve had:

The two ladies sat behind me at the Wigmore Hall at a Michael Collins concert, when Michael walked on for the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with a basset clarinet (an instrument considerably longer than a ‘normal’ clarinet).
“Is that a normal clarinet dear? It seems very long.”
“I think it is dear. Remember, he is very short.”

The member of a Silent Film Club who came to a showing of a 1929 silent film with its original score (by Shostakovich) performed live, and noisily complained about the “bloody music spoiling the film”.

CLoSer

Hugh Brunt conducting the score for The New Babylon by Shostakovich as part of CLoSer 2013

The leader of the support band for singer Marlene Shaw (her of California Soul fame) at Ronnie Scott’s telling the entire audience to STFU* (to borrow Accidento’s phrase) because singers didn’t like people talking through their sets. The entire audience did STFU for Marlene Shaw, but because she was amazing and we wanted to listen, unfortunately the same could not be said for the support band!

And this rather more worrying example from when I was producing concerts at the Roundhouse… during a performance of Steve Reich’s Different Trains, in the movement where Reich portrays the forced train journeys taken by European Jews in the Holocaust, one audience member leaned over and kissed his partner on the cheek. A fellow audience member tore into him, saying he was being disrespectful and insulting, to the extent that the security team had to tell him to calm down or they would throw him out. The victim of his rant was kissing his partner as an act of love: she was the descendant of Auschwitz survivors.

Only last weekend I was at Multi-story at Peckham car park, hearing Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony being performed (very well) in a low ceilinged 1960’s brutalist concrete block, open to the elements on either side, and adjacent to the noisy rumble of London Overground trains. A majority of audience members – through sheer excitement and enthusiasm – clapped between each movement**. But you could tell that there were some others there bristling with anger, although one wonders if those people had come simply to get annoyed, in true Father Ted style, about ‘this sort of thing’.

Multi-Story Summer 2015 Trailer from The Multi-Story Orchestra on Vimeo.

Gillian came up with a set of seven rules of how to behave at classical concerts. I don’t disagree with any of them per se, particularly the one about remembering that the person next to you might be at their first classical concert. I’m not sure that you have to read up about the music before you go (rule 2): music can be enjoyed in a pure sense, as well as in context, but I see Gillian’s point that “you get more out the more you put in”.

Accidento’s response is concerts for the “under-disciplined”, where all the shoulder-pokers can stay away and keep to their buttoned up selves, and she and her friends can sit in her living room and listen to Iestyn Davies with wine and sarnies. I’m not convinced that lots of rules, or self-discriminating audience separation is the way forward though.

Is CLoSer the panacea to all these audience ills? That’s not for me to say as I’m too close to it to judge. Yes, Village Underground is undoubtedly very atmospheric and has great acoustics (and it’s in Shoreditch), our musicians love playing there and feel they can take risks which they wouldn’t countenance at a more formal venue, there are talking programme notes, no stage so you can sit on a cushion and be really close to the performers (if your knees/back won’t take it we have some proper chairs as well), it’s live streamed, etc. etc. and well done CLS you’ve ticked every box on the ‘Alternative Classical’ check list.

CLoSer

What is really interesting about CLoSer is the audience. At the start of every concert, we tell people that they can go to the bar whenever they want, clap when/where they want, take pictures on their phones and tweet them, whisper sweet nothings in their neighbour’s ear, move, dance, whatever…. but then we ask them, respectfully, to do this with consideration to others.

People do indulge in all of the list above, but at the same time it’s the quietest, most considerate and engaged audience I have ever had the pleasure to be a part of.

During the quiet bits you can hear a pin drop. During the noisy bits people look exhilarated. No-one pokes anyone, or humiliates them. Some people come because they are regular concert goers and want to hear great music in an unusually intimate setting. Some people come because it’s their first classical concert and they feel, rightly or wrongly, less worried about going to Village Underground than they would a more traditional venue.

So, my guide for going to classical music concerts:

  1. Classical music is powerful – be prepared to experience that;
  2. Be considerate to other audience members;
  3. If in doubt, refer to 2.

See you at CLoSer.

Matthew Swann
Chief Executive
City of London Sinfonia

* Look it up. But maybe not at work.

** Because clapping between movements in a Beethoven Symphony ‘ruins’ it, but coughing between each movement doesn’t? If you’re a regular concert-goer you’ll know exactly what I mean.


Besides CLoSer, if you’re looking for an ‘alternative’ classical music experience, do check out Multi-Story in Peckham. There are no events coming up soon, but they’re a great organisation who bring music to really unusual spaces. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment also runs a great programme called The Night Shift, which brings their programme into informal settings across the country. Those new to classical music should check out Barbican Centre’s Sound Unbound Festival at the end of October…

CLOSER: Debussy, Copland and Dance
Tuesday 22 September 2015, 7:30pm
Village Underground, Shoreditch
Tickets £15 or £5 for students and 16-25s (pre-register at www.cls.co.uk/cls-fiver) available from Spitalfields Music Box Office or via phone on 020 7377 1362.

Images credit James Berry Photography

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