Formality in concert: have we gone too far?
I've written before about the sense of formality in today's classical music concert world - a formality that sometimes borders on rigidity. No applause between movements is one of my favorite symbols for this problem, though the white tie and tails of orchestra musicians runs a close second. This ritual-like atmosphere, which to some degree can enhance a concert experience, can also, if overdone, make it a less-than-welcoming experience for those new to the music. That is especially true, I think, of younger people who have grown up in a society that has moved away from some of these rituals...
I would never advocate a return to the "good old days" of the 19th-century concert. But a good look at that era shows us how huge the distance is between then and now, and I wonder if at least some degree of the more relaxed atmosphere of the past might not be a good thing.
What sparked this is a radio program I was producing recently on music by the 19th-century Polish violinist and composer Karol Lipiński. Lipiński was called by some the Polish Paganini, and was a very important musician respected by Schumann, Liszt, Spohr and others, even though he has disappeared from today's music world (which is too bad - his concertos are great fun, in the Paganini mold).
At any rate, I found commentary by the poet Franciszek Kowalski on an early performance of Lipiński's First Violin Concerto, given in Kiev (we are talking about 1824 here), with the composer as soloist. The picture created by this commentary is fascinating:
Thus we went to Lipiński's concert. The room could not accommodate all the people, numbering perhaps a thousand. With my heart beating frantically, I awaited the appearance of the great master. In the meantime, an excellent orchestra played various pieces, until the tones of the wonderful Tutti from his first Concerto could be heard [note: this refers to the orchestral introduction to the piece] and when the orchestra fell silent the composer in person, violin in hand, stepped onto the empty podium in the midst of the orchestra. This was when I saw him for the first time middle-aged, with a pale face and dark black hair, slender, of medium height, dressed all in black with a white kerchief and vest, the way he always dressed. He was greeted immediately with friendly glances and loud cheers by the members of the public that he had already known. His modest demeanor...captivated me as it did the others, beyond all bounds. And that was still nothing compared with what was coming when with solemn silence he drew the bow and sang the first solo of his Concerto....
It is of course impossible to imagine a soloist making a grand entrance after the orchestral introduction but before the introduction of the solo instrument in a concerto today - and I would be the first to agree that we might all recoil in some horror at that level of disruption to the flow of the music (though it is certainly interesting to realize that the composer didn't mind it). But it does raise the issue, yet again, of just how far we have carried the formality of our contemporary concerts, and whether perhaps we have gone too far.
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