One of the secondary pleasures of going to live music in concert is “audience watching”. Different artists and repertoire attract different audiences (the music of Scriabin, for example, seems to attract a particularly ‘unusual’ audience…..). The ritual of concert going and the habits of audiences have fascinated and intrigued me since I was a young child when my parents took me to the Proms and concerts at Birmingham Town Hall (where the CBSO was based before Symphony Hall was built).

I love the very palpable sense of “collective listening”, that curious vibration in the concert hall when everyone is listening very intently, or when the musician/s creates a remarkably intense connection via his/her performance and the power of the music. At the end of a particularly concentrated performance, one senses the audience uncurling and flexing, like an animal, before exhaling a collective breath and applauding. At a recent lunchtime concert at my local music society, I was amused to observe the reactions of several members of the audience to some rather outré contemporary music which was being performed by a piano and percussion duo. The final piece in the programme, during which the performers alternated between throwing themselves onto the piano keyboard and clapping (including some quite intricate “Pat-a-Cake” clapping patterns), seemed particularly “challenging” for certain members of the audience. Some people shifted uncomfortably in their seats, presumably because they found the music unpleasant or difficult to understand. Another person rested his head on his left hand, feigning boredom or sleep; others lowered their heads or looked down at their laps in embarrassment. Luckily no one walked out, though I suspect a couple of people might have considered doing so. When the piece ended, some of the applause felt like relief, that this curious “musical” experience was over, though in general I felt the applause was given generously, as it always is at my local music society’s concerts.

scientist-crowd-surf
Crowd-surfing is generally not acceptable at a classical music concert…..

I think it’s important to be challenged by music and that listening should not necessarily always be a passive activity – though of course a concert can, and should, be a relaxing and enjoyable activity as well. I have experienced sidelong glances from other audience members when I have laughed at the wit of Haydn or Beethoven, or a certain gesture by a performer to highlight a moment of humour in the music. These days I quite regularly cry at concerts, overwhelmed by the music and the emotional experience of hearing it (a friend of mine believes I suffer from Stendhal Syndrome with this regard). Yet the etiquette of the concert hall, a mode of behaviour which developed at the end of the nineteenth century when concert going became more formal, and largely remains so today, can make people feel constrained, obliged to sit in rigid reverential silence for the duration of the performance. It is this etiquette which can also put people off attending classical concerts, and the unwelcoming attitude of some fellow concert-goers, and the conventions of the concert hall – how to behave, in particular when to applaud – can make concert-going a behavioural minefield for the ingenue concert-goer. There is a small contingent of audience members who wish to maintain these conventions and they manifest their antagonism to the more relaxed concert-goer by curious (mostly) passive aggressive behaviour including glaring at the person who accidentally drops their programme or loudly shushing others. Sometimes these are the same people who bellow “Bravo!” at the end of the concert, or start applauding almost before the final note has sounded. All of this behaviour would probably seem very alien to the likes of Mozart and Beethoven, and even Brahms and Tchaikovsky, who were used to a much more rowdy and noisily engaged audience. Somehow we need to find a middle way between the very formal behaviour which still dominates classical concert going and a more relaxed attitude akin to an earlier age which allows people to react spontaneously to what they hear, feel and experience……

640px-james_tissot_-_hush21
Hush! (The Concert) by James Tissot