Hitting a nerve

A lot of people want classical concerts — both on stage and in the audience — to be livelier. Here’s some recent e-mail I’ve gotten on this subject, all of it wonderfully written, passionate, and of course quoted here with the writers’ permission.

From Karen Pinzolo:

I’d be very interested to understand, from a historical viewpoint, why I sit as an unembodied soul at a concert where the only hint of life is my chest rising and falling with each unconscious breath. When I listen to any other kind of music I can’t help but sway, bob, and gyrate. At what point in history did we as an audience become outwardly unresponsive?

From someone who’d rather not be named:

Your recent posting on making concerts vital and relevant came at a shocking time for me – I’ve attended two chamber recitals recently where, despite excellent technical playing, I was in severe danger of falling asleep and pitching off of my chair during the entirety of each! I still enjoy the music – yesterday I took Bach’s cello suites along on a long nature walk, but performances played “straight” – reverent silence, tasteful black clothes, quiet public or church spaces full of reverent 60+ audience members, are killing me. The string quartet playing last Friday night in the wine bar was fun, and fab. But sitting like a nice girl, holding my program, listening to technically good but unimpassioned playing (sometimes by musicians who look like they are preparing their taxes) will be the end of me. Perhaps I’ve just caught too many performances that lacked deeper, emotional connection between the artists and repertoire, or excited artists in general, but if this is a widely-known issue (as it appears to be) it’s not good. Modern Americans are running away from the churches and lectures that are “good for them” but put them to sleep – concerts like these are little better!

And from the irrepressible Jennifer Foster (almost every time she e-mails I want to quote her), a glimpse of something better:

I had the pleasure of performing at a music “event” (party? happening?) this past weekend in Virginia with pianist Greg McCallum. People attending had the option of sitting and listening with rapt attention or meandering around the rest of this house on the hill in the Blue Ridge, nibbling on food, emptying wine and beer bottles and chatting. Seven hours of performances ranged from soliloquy with harmonica to bluegrass to classical. When Greg played his “Hymn Quilt” (on his Southern Quilt CD) people felt free to hum along, stomp, exclaim, and “ah” with recognition. Their responsiveness fed him and he fed them right back with one of the most exciting performances of Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues I’ve ever witnessed. People stomped, hollered and jumped out of their seats when it was over. They gasped audibly as he played.

How wonderful, to be free to express enjoyment during the performances!

For more on Greg McCallum (whom I’ve mentioned in this blog before), go here.

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  1. says

    Rather Not Be Named mentions something towards the end of their note i would echo and amplify: the parallel between much church experience and concert etiquette (and the question of the chicken and the egg).

    There are those who point to a liberal/conservative difference between shrinking/growing churches, but more interesting to me is that the correlation seems closer between a general trend for stuffy, staid, dress-up, sit still, barely be spoken to directly churches to be in decline no matter what their theology, and physically plus emotionally expressive worship where the message is delivered to hearers in a much more conversational, personal manner are growing — if you don’t know the spectrum these days, that’s not code for Pentecostal churches alone, but many other contemporary/emergent worship styles.

    I grew up in, and am still more personally comfortable, in worship services that are more like a still (stiff?) Bch concert, but i see the broader trend very clearly, without enitrely understanding where it comes from or what it says about the future we should be shaping.



  2. says


    I’d just like to mention how much of an inspiration your writing has been for us at IberoAmerica Ensemble. In fact our cellist is reputed to have recently sung one of her favourite songs as an encore for her last concert!

    We read you frequently. Thank you.

    I’m grateful for this. Thanks, Luis. And what a lovely idea — for an instrumentalist to sing for an encore. I was on a panel some years ago with the wonderful composer Derek Bermel. He introduced himself by a singing a song, so beautifully that it was a delight to hear him. And imagine that — actual music, as part of a panel discussion about the classical music business. Derek elevated that panel to a place most of these discussions never reach.

  3. says

    A year or two I remember reading an article in the NY Times (I think) about the folk music scene, specifically a pretty elaborate network of house concerts. It got me thinking about the possibility of establishing a similar network (nationwide?) for classical chamber music, which after all, works best in that kind of intimate setting. I think many of your readers who are put off by the formality of the classical concert would find the relaxed nature of a house concert more appealing.

    I understand the frustrations expressed by Karen Pinzolo and your unnamed reader. No classical performer I know would have a problem with her wanting to “sway, bob, and gyrate” to the music. Where things get more complicated is when one’s own manifestation of enthusiasm impinges on somebody else’s experience of the music. It might feel really good to let out a really big “Oh, wow…” at some gorgeous little harmonic turn in a Schubert slow movement, but the guy sitting next to me might have his own blissful buzz killed by that same exclamation, feeling (and rightfully so) that he paid money to hear the X String Quartet, not me. In a big hall, multiply that by 2000 and you see there is a legitimate question of where your own freedom to enjoy the music as you might like, can possibly butt up against someone else’s freedom to enjoy the music in THEIR way.

    But that’s an extreme example, and I think any classical musician would take a noisily enthusiastic audience any day over a polite but emotionally unreachable audience.

    I also think that in the right setting, such as the wonderfully convivial house concert my friend Jennifer Foster describes above, a performer can also work an audience into a state of hushed, almost painful, stillness and quietness for certain kinds of music, too. Not a “this is classical music so we better behave right” formal stillness, but a “this music is so beautiful that I can hardly breathe” kind of stillness. Quietness can be an active, palpable reaction by an audience.

    It’s all about the setting, the context, and I think those who prefer the more formal setting can certainly find that, but there are increasing examples of unusual and unorthodox formats for presenting classical music that are popping up everywhere. Naturally that applies mostly to solo and chamber music as a matter of practicality.

  4. Scott Belyea says

    I have no objection to the sorts of “more lively” events described … but would note that it depends a lot on what’s being presented.

    The two “events” that have meant the most to me in the last few years have been a Winterreise with Quasthoff/Zeyen and a St. Matthew Passion directed by McGegan. I doubt I would have reacted with enthusiasm to someone seated in front of me gyrating enthusiastically and shouting out exclamations of pleasure.

    But I recall several jazz performances where exactly that happened … and enhanced the experience.

    No, I don’t think gyrating to the St. Matthew Passion would be helpful. Or to Winterreise.

    But surely this isn’t quite the point. Nobody says (or at least nobody I know) that

    all classical music events ought to feature a swaying, dancing, time-beating, beaming audience. I’ve seen pop audiences completely silent, mesmerized, not moving at all. It all depends on the music. Which especially becomes obvious, I’d think, in classical concerts, since there’s so much music from so many different eras, written in such different circumstances, for such different audiences, and with such different expectations of audience participation. (Or non-participation.) Mozart expected his audiences to applaud the moment they heard something they liked. Bach, I’d assume, would have been outraged if anyone did that in church.

    And as for Winterreise, there’s one thing Schubert’s audience (such as there was, for his songs, while he was alive) did that a modern audience wouldn’t be likely to do. They burst into tears. What would we think, what would we feel, if any large number of people did that now?

  5. Geo. says

    Belated response, and one which may throw me into the “moldy fig camp”. When classical musicians are playing either in an orchestra, a string quartet, an opera production, or solo, they are doing a job, they are doing their work. This work, the bringing of a musical score to aural life, requires tremendous mental concentration and physical effort. It’s the same with a surgeon in a delicate operation, or a construction worker putting an I-beam in place. You don’t interrupt these professionals in the course of their job. The same applies to classical musicians, or indeed musicians of any genre. It’s just that music and the technology of disseminating music have “dehumanized” music to a point that consumers forget that it takes real people to make music in a live context.

    Well, it’s fascinating to see how this plays out in the real world. In a tennis tournament, the crowd is supposed to be absolutely silent during play. The players, top professionals, shouldn’t be distracted from doing their very difficult job. But in baseball, the crowd screams constantly. Major league pitchers can’t afford to be bothered by that. They have to aim their pitches toward some particular cubic inch of air somewhere above home plate, firing those pitches off at 93 miles per hour. Even while the crowd screams.

    So what professionals need, to do their work, is variable. It depends on circumstances; it depends on what everyone is used to. In classical music, everyone is used to silence during performances. And musicians are used to focusing on the music, without caring how they look. But now it’s musicians themselves, very often, who want that to change. See my blog post on the subject, at http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2006/05/no_leadership.html

    I wouldn’t jump to any quick conclusions on this subject. It’s complex. And, as ever, real-world information counts more than anybody’s speculation, either this commenter’s or mine.

  6. John H says

    The problem is that the rows of seating in a concert hall are all connected into long single pieces of furniture, instead of being made of individual chairs. If the chairs were separated, like they would be in a jazz club, people would be able to move about when enjoying the music.

    Yes, they could move about, in the sense of getting up and walking. But it’s also possible to move in your seat, and this is highly discouraged in concert halls, though we’ve all seen it. I remember one respectable Wall Street-seeming man who banged his fist in rhythm with Alfred Brendel.

    There’s a painting in the Louvre that shows an extremely formal 18th century concert, something organized by a French cardinal to honor a member of the royal family.The concert space looks much like the ones we have today, with rows of seats along the floor. In spite of that, people are walking and talking among those rows of seats. There’s even a nobleman standing in the middle of a row, with his back to the stage, talking to the people seated there, who all are priests. I imagine these rows of seats were further apart than what we’re used to, because the nobleman had room to stand, but still…there are possibilities we may not have thought about.

    Our concert halls, in any case, relfect the kind of attention we expect should be paid. Christopher Small writes quite wonderfully about this in his book Musicking.

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