Audiences behaving badly

I’m off to my spiritual home this evening, London’s exquisite Wigmore Hall, to hear the exquisite English tenor Ian Bostridge singing songs by Britten, Tippett, Haydn and Weill, in a special concert which marks the last day of Sir John Tusa’s chairmanship of the Wigmore Hall Trust. I bought a new jumper especially for the concert: it is partly because I love having an opportunity to dress up, and I do think one should make an effort for the soloists, who have, after all, made a huge effort to come out and perform for us. Also, I am going in my new role as a reviewer for, and, daft as it may seem, being well-dressed will make me feel confident.

Meanwhile, as I prepare myself to go out, I’ve been thinking about ‘concert etiquette’. It regularly astonishes me how badly people can behave in a concert hall: talking during the performance, humming (often tunelessly), rustling programmes, trying to open blister packs of cough sweets, coughing, yawning. Added to that, there is quite often the dimwit who forgot to switch off their phone, despite the big sign on the stage and hefty reminders by the house staff. I have, twice, been ticked off for having a “very loud watch” (a Swatch, in fact), which “interrupted” the pianissimo slow movement of a Beethoven sonata. At a Chopin recital I went to five years ago, my companion sipped Pimms from a Thermos flask during a performance of the Opus 49 Fantasie. (She also asked me, in the interval, after we’d just heard the B-flat minor Sonata, “So, who wrote the original Funeral March?”, but that is another story….)

From conversations with performers, I’ve learnt that the sense of an audience which is attentive or actively engaged in what one is doing can be extremely helpful, inspirational even, in creating the right atmosphere and circumstances for a great performance. Likewise, as a member of the audience, the sense that the performer is drawing us all along in one marvellous shared musical experience is also very exciting. Mitsuko Uchida is extremely good at this, even in a venue the size of the Royal Festival Hall, while Stephen Hough’s chilly manner made the normally convivial Wigmore seem cold and unfriendly.

Another gripe of mine is about that sector of the concert-going public who seem to gain a perverse thrill from spotting mistakes or flagging up memory lapses or other errors during a performance, as if they are actively waiting for the performer to fail. Rather like hoping for a crash at the beginning of a grand prix race. Some people can’t wait to get home and check their score, or a “perfect” recording while enjoying a sense of smugness in having heard a smudged note or a smeared run in the 15th bar of the First Ballade. When I heard Simone Dinnerstein perform at WH a few year’s ago (admittedly, a rather dull and uninspiring performance generally), she had a serious memory lapse in Schubert’s 4th Impromptu of the D899 set. I know this piece extremely well and I knew exactly where the error occurred. Fortunately, she managed to maintain the right harmonic framework, but it was still a very obvious mistake. I really felt for her, and I wonder how many hours of practice she put in after the event to exorcise that particular error.

At the Wigmore, the large majority of the audience are elderly, some very elderly (read the paragraph Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach for the most perfect description of the Wigmore’s superannuated audience), and the seats are rather comfy and plushy, and it’s often too warm in the hall. Result: Beethoven’s Opus 5 to the accompaniment of snoring. For a performer, it must be rather galling to have spent all those hours preparing only to find a third of the audience asleep, ten minutes into the performance. Ditto people yawning, or talking. In reality, I suspect many performers are expert at “filtering out” such behaviour, and in bigger venues, the lighting is such that only the first few rows of the audience are actually visible.

Of course, these are all relatively minor complaints, and it is rare for such things to spoil my enjoyment of a live concert. For those who require absolute silence, 100 per cent concentration, and perfect delivery from the performer, may I suggest you stay home with the most precision-engineered recording you can find. It might be a perfect performance, but it will lack the danger, risk and excitement of live music.


  1. Generally, I must admit I have few complaints to make about audience behaviour at classical concerts, but there have certainly been a few that stand out. There was a young lady once at the Proms who seemed instances to think that Claudio Abbado conducting Bruckner’s 9th symphony was the ideal background music for reading her John Grisham novel (I kid you not!) OK – so it wasn’t noisy – but it was distracting. But the worst was a concert I wentto a few years ago with Jurowski conducting the LPO in two warhorses – Brahms’ violin concerto, and Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony. The evening started with a few pieces by Mark-Antony Turnage, and, given the number of people who took their seats only after those pieces, it seemed to me obvious that there were many who had missed those pieces intentionally. It seemed to me bad manners, to say the least. But worse was to come: during those hushed and profoundly tragic fiinal bars of Tchaikovsky’s symphony, a mobile phone went off. No, it did, really – just at that point. Afterwards, as Jurowski was walking off the podium, he as shaking his head in disbelief, and I think most of us knew how he felt.

    • A friend told me an anecdote of how Andras Schiff, displeased at the noisy audience during one of his recitals, proceeded to play Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy as an encore, as revenge….. A phone went off at the Ian Bostridge recital last Monday – it was quickly hushed, fortunately, and it did not interrupt the flow of the concert. When I heard Leon McCawley last month, the girls sitting next to me were messing about with their iPhones. The usher came over and very sternly and silently wagged her finger at them

  2. I seem to have a lot of bad luck when it comes to finding myself sitting next to noisy people in the audience. Recently, I’ve found I’ve had to move seat during the interval, or even after the first piece. Why is it the audience all seem to be perfectly quiet except the people given seats near mine (the new seat is always fine)? So I move, and if the staff are unhappy with that, they are welcome to instruct the other audience member to be quiet instead!

    One particular gripe is the number of people who seem to have breathing problems so that they breathe loudly, like Darth Vader. I know they probably can’t help this, but unlike rustling programmes or sweet wrappers, it’s with you for the whole concert and does spoil it. I’ve also had people with jangly bracelets: why wear that to a concert?

    However, the worst thing is people who see the need to talk. If you have a comment to make to your companion about the music, wait until between pieces. It’s particularly galling for me as I usually attend concerts on my own, which isn’t exactly my first choice, so I have no-one even to share my opinions with in the interval. There was the opening of a slow movement of a symphony, where the man sitting behind me felt it necessary to tell his wife, “My favourite”. It totally spoilt the mood at the start of the movement. Then there was a beautiful horn solo during one piece where an elderly man behind me clearly couldn’t spot the horn player, so said out loud, “Where?” He didn’t even attempt to whisper.

    I agree that the odd cough, shuffle or rustle of programmes is just part of the ambience at a live performance. But anything that’s going to make a noise throughout the entire performance is unfair on the people sitting immediately next to you, and talking during the music is inexcusable.

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