The growth of Western classical music in China has been widely reported on for some years now – indeed, we ourselves wrote a book on the subject, “Rhapsody in Red: How Western Classical Music Became Chinese.”
But one interesting aspect of this phenomenon that has received little coverage is the extent to which Western listening habits have also taken root in China– a fact that many would cheer, but which perhaps should give us all pause.
This thought came to us during the recent “Reaction to the Record” conference at Stanford University during a presentation entitled “Can We Make Classical Music Exciting Again?” by Anatole Leikin, a pianist and music professor at UC Santa Cruz. Leikin lamented the current state of classical music, which he described as “dropping out of the cultural mainstream,” plagued by aging and dwindling audiences and failing orchestras and record companies.
Among the potentially solvable reasons for this sad state of affairs, Leikin quoted the musicologist Richard Taruskin bemoaning “the ritualism of our smug, dull concert life.” Once upon a time, said Leikin, the audience participated in concerts. Applause could be heard between movements – indeed, if it was not heard, many musicians were chagrined. Brahms, Leikin said, knew at once that his first piano concerto was a failure because there was no applause after its first movement. Many musicians interacted with audiences as a matter of course – Liszt would improvise, talk to his listeners and essentially stage variety concerts. Nobody thought clapping was “irreverent or stupid;” instead, audience members were allowed to express their emotions.
This style of listening to music – which Leikin says died out after World War II when the “great freeze in performing climate” took hold – resembles traditional Chinese opera-going. Indeed, Chinese operas were generally performed in a teahouse style setting (and sometimes still are), with the audience sipping and snacking even as the performance went on. Teapots with extremely long spouts were used to reach through the crowds to refill cups with boiling water; steaming hot towels were tossed to audience members who needed to clean up (or wake up). If a singer was particularly good, the audience shouted its collective acclaim – hao, hao, hao! And if the aria was a familiar one, many members simply sang along, as loud as they pleased. Small children were brought along for the fun – Jindong still remembers with delight the countless nights he spent at Peking opera performances with his grandparents in the Qianmen theater district, eating peanuts and sunflower seeds and running up and down the aisles.
Over the years, however, Western-style theaters were constructed for the performance of symphonic music and spoken (as opposed to sung) drama; eventually Chinese opera was transferred to such venues. Audiences were discouraged from talking and eating (though they still did both), often bringing their dinner in with them in a plastic bag and making outgoing calls during the performance. Indeed, when the Julliard String Quartet performed in Guangzhou in 1999, its members were so appalled by audience behavior that two of them left the stage in frustration. In recent years, as “grand theaters” containing opera houses, concert halls and drama theaters – and costing hundreds of millions of dollars – have been built in dozens of cities around the country, there has been a real push to enforce what is now considered standard classical music etiquette. Indeed, the pre-concert instructional recording at the Guangzhou Opera House not only tells audience members to turn off their mobiles, but informs them that they should not clap between movements. And they don’t.
So, is this good or bad? Does the absorption of modern symphonic concert-going etiquette mean that Chinese audiences can finally appreciate classical music in the same silent, formal way as Westerners – or that even as classical music seems to flourish, the “ritualism” and “smugness” that will eventually spell its demise is spreading like rot through China’s spectacular new concert halls?
As a symphony orchestra conductor who grew up cracking sunflower seeds as he watched opera, Jindong has a unique perspective. His view is that it’s fine to applaud between movements if the audience is so moved – he appreciates the enthusiasm and does not think anyone should be made to feel foolish for clapping at the “wrong” time. He also believes in some interaction between audience and performers – indeed, he often addresses the audience before a concert. But, he draws the line at eating and talking, because he feels it distracts from the artistry of a performance.
Perhaps it is time for a reconsideration of classical music audience etiquette. Instead of exporting musical snobbery along with symphonic orchestras, we should import spontaneity and enthusiasm – but draw the line at eating sausages and dried squid.