Two-way music

Today I was catching up with the first episode of Treme, David Simon’s new series on HBO. Simon being the creator of The Wire, an epic which, to my mind, is one of the best things ever on TV, and a standing rebuke to classical music.If, for instance, an opera company would produce anything as epic, as probing, as crucial to our understanding of the civilization we have right now, I’d fall off my feet with shock and, yes, respect.

So, Treme. Takes place in New Orleans, just after Katrina. Starts with preparations for music, a band getting itself together. And then the band marching through the street. People dance with joy. Um, have we ever seen anything like that with classical music? Maybe the famous Leonard Bernstein Beethoven 9th in Berlin, after the Wall fell, with (in the last movement) “Freiheit” (“freedom”) substituted for “Freude” (“joy”). (Thanks, by the way, to Ray Nagrin, one of my Juilliard students this semester, for reminding me of that.)

But can we think of other examples? Other times when classical music plays, and the crowd is on its feet, dancing, singing, responding?

A few years ago, I was at a private gathering of orchestras, held in Cleveland. On the schedule was a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After it I chaired a panel discussion on the differences or links between classical music and rock. Several orchestra musicians, thinking of videos they’d seen in the Rock Hall, wistfully said they wished the classical audience could be as excited as the rock audience they saw in the videos.

Once I went to see Neil Young with three other people. One was a straight-ahead classical music person. Who said, emphatically, that everyone in classical music should go to a rock show, to see what it’s like when an audience really cares.

But then rock — by its very sound, its inherent informality, its beat — just invites participation. (Not to mention its familiarity, and its ease, the way it invites just about anyone to start a band and join in.) While classical music is dished out from the top down, with everyone involved knowing their place.

See this chapter from Christopher Small’s book Musicking for a trenchant look at classical concerts, and how they encourage separation, not participation.

So what do you think? Can classical music ever arouse people in the simple, human, ecstatic, participatory way that rock does? Is there any hope? Or is that even necessary? Does classical music walk its own austere road, with all the excitement going on inside?

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Tristan Parker says

    I’m a little wary of bringing this up, because I’ve seen the performance turn some classical music folk rabid, but Paul Pots’ “Britain’s Got Talent” performance immediately sprang to mind when you asked that question. A young, pop-centered tv-studio audience spontaneously bursting into applause and tears at a performance of Nessun Dorma.

    So yes, it is possible for classical music to have this effect, but the response I saw to it from the classical world indicated that it involved sacrificing… something, I couldn’t quite tell what.

  2. says

    I’ve always this idea that volume is a big part of why classical concerts are so formal and tend to squash participation. I remember going to my first opera at the Met and, not being able to afford nice seats (especially since I had to pay for my friend’s ticket just to get someone to go with me), I ended up sitting on the highest level. I knew the opera and was pretty excited to experience it live but as soon as the music started playing I just felt terribly underwhelmed. Prior to this experience, all my encounters with opera were through recordings and films where I could turn everything up as loud as I wanted. What I heard, in the actual opera house, felt like listening to my speakers on a really low level as to not bother my roommate. Maybe the experience is different when you have nice seats, which I still can’t afford (another hurdle for people who want to check out something new), but it doesn’t seem like it would get anywhere near the volume associated with rock or hip-hop shows.

    My point to all this is, even if the people in the audience at classical concerts are in utter ecstasy over what they’re hearing, there really isn’t much they can do to participate. How raucous can you really get when a cough or even the unwinding of a cough drop wrapper can be heard over the music? Classical concerts almost require calm in order for the music to not be drowned out, save for applauds and during those heavy brass sections.

    Interestingly enough, when I brought up the idea of amplifying classical music on an online forum for composers the response was overwhelmingly in the negative. There seemed to be a consensus that this would ruin the sound and create lazy, skill-less performers. I was even told that everything is too loud these days and, hence, to hell with the regular concert goers who feel underwhelmed after paying good money to see their first classical concert.

    PS. There’s a concert with Karajan on YouTube during a New Years’ gala where the audience starts clapping along and Karajan starts conducting the audience as well as the orchestra. Probably one of the few examples of participation.

    Sorry ’bout the length here.

    No problem with the length, Josh.

    Italian opera audiences up through the 1950s participated in performances, often raucously. There are accounts of shouting matches — or at least remarks exchanged — between the audience and the singers on stage. One reason this could happen was that the singers, on the whole, were more vivid. Had larger, far more theatrical personalities than most people in opera. I remember an occasion in the ’80s when the Met had two Italian stars at the end of their careers — Giuseppe Taddei and Fiorenza Cossotto — singing in Verdi’s Falstaff. Some American singers in the cast complained, saying that the Italians kept stealing all the scenes they were in. My answer was that when these Italians were in their prime, everyone on stage would try to do that. And that the remedy for these very well-bred Americans would be to lose their inhibitions, and steal the scenes themselves.

  3. Roderick Gorby says

    Is it possible the divide between classical and rock rests not only along the beat-presence fault line, but also along the lyrics-presence fault-line? Music that tells you what the notes are about with melodies you can sing unassisted will always resonate with more people than any kind of instrumental music, even instrumental rock music, imho

    I think it often, maybe mostly, works the opposite way. The music tells you what inner meaning of the lyrics is. In any case, it’s the music that almost always attracts attention before the lyrics do. Even when you think that isn’t true — as maybe in Katy Petty’s hit last summer, “I Kissed A Girl” — the music has to do something to grab your attention, otherwise you’d never be hearing the song in the first place.

  4. Robert Berger says

    Sorry, but I disagree with the whole premise of your post. Audiences and concerts and opera re often highly enthusiastic,and they often respond with lusty cheers and bravos.

    I remember a truly great concert at Carnegie Hall some years ago with Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic playing Bruckner 7.

    The cheers were so loud I had to cover my ears!It’s unfair to judge classical conerts by the standards of audience behavior at Rock concerts. Apples and oranges.

    You should talk first to the classical people I referred to who went to rock events or saw videos and thought something was lacking in the classical audience. Why do you think they said that?

    Or you could talk to some of my students, who often say they wish the audience would react more. Maybe the apples and oranges part here is that in classical music, we judge audience response only by what people do when a piece is over. In other areas of performance (theater, for instance), performers are strongly aware of how an audience is reacting all through the performance. Whether or not the audience interrupts the proceedings in any way.

  5. Dave says

    I also disagree entirely with the post. Sure, it would be great if people new to the art could come and get caught up in a primitive energy of the shared experience. But art music is about stretching all emotions, not just the fun ones. I resent the comment about our audience not caring. For all the wistfulness for a dancing audience, I’d like to come out of a rock concert and be genuinely surprised or moved or affected in the same way I do when I leave a great classical concert. There are a lot of things we can do to freshen our product, but if success is going to be judged like a rock concert, count me out.

    So, Dave, where do you ge tthe idea that rock is only about “primitive energy,” and that the only emotions engaged are “the fun ones”? Are you sure this is an area you know a lot about? I think you’re showing some prejudice here.

    As I said to Robert Berger, you should talk to the classical people I mentioned about what, exactly, they found the rock audience doing that the classical audience doesn’t do. /blockquote>

  6. says

    “But can we think of other examples? Other times when classical music plays, and the crowd is on its feet, dancing, singing, responding?” Well, I wouldn’t want us to, frankly, because then I couldn’t hear the quiet parts. As for audience participation, every time the Vienna Philharmonic plays Strauss’s Radetzky March, the audience claps along. The BBC Proms audience at the Final Night sings along with “Rule, Brittania!” and “God Save the Queen.” Audiences have also been known to sing along with “Auld Lang Syne” and the “Stars and Stripes Forever” whenever they’re performed.

    Mark, I think you underestimate all kinds of audiences here. Why do you think a classical audience — on its feet, and responding vividly — wouldn’t get quiet when the music does? I programmed and hosted a concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony where we did the first movement of Mozart’s Paris Symphony. I read the audience a famous letter of Mozart’s, in which he tells his father how he seeded the piece with passages that he hoped would make the audience applaud — during the music. He was gratified when they did just that.

    I told the Pittsburgh audience they should feel free to applaud whenever they heard anything they liked. Which they did. And then, when the music changed — which it does, constantly, in that movement — they’d stop clapping to listen to the new thing that was happening.

    Do you think rock audiences make noise during soft songs? No way. They get quiet. In the old days, they’d hold up their lighters, to create an almost reverent visual atmosphere for the slow, soft songs. Now they tend to hold up their cell phones, so their friends can listen. Maybe behavior like that isn’t appropriate for classical music, but it does show that audiences aren’t as careless as you might think they’d be.

  7. Billy T says

    the audience has no freedom at a classical music concert.

    1. we can’t make any noise, not even a cheer or a clap or two in between movements.

    2. we can’t come in late if the music has already started and have to wait for the movement to end. In opera, you have to wait for the act to end.

    3. not to mention, you can’t eat at your seat, no drinks, you are discouraged to text. what if you had to get up to go to the bathroom?

    it’s like the audience pays the money and then the symphony thanks us by stripping away our bill of rights. of course your audience is shrinking. and reactions like: “to hell with the regular concert goers…” just about sums up the attitudes from community orchestras to professional groups, the entire approach to classical concert giving needs to adapt or they risk extinction.

  8. says

    Last season, the Academy of Ancient Music played all six Bach Brandenburg Concertos at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

    This audience, to my eyes and memory, represents what we usually describe as the typical classical music concert going demographic. They are also engaged and passionate about music.

    After conductor/keyboard player Richard Egaar finished the keyboard cadenza in the 1st movement for the fifth Brandenburg, the audience broke out in loud, boisterous applause — before the movement was over….the music was still playing. The orchestra members looked a bit bemused, very surprised and very appreciative.

    There’s plenty of enthusiastic applause and passionate bravos at concerts that I am seeing and hearing. I’m also seeing a less restrictive environment when it comes to applause — your mileage may vary.

    I’m more worried about the automatic standing ovations that occur at many concerts when the performance is really average or slightly better than average. That, to me, sends an even worse message and is of greater concern.

    Like MG above, I don’t want anything inhibiting our enjoyment of the soft moments or the silence at the end of a movement where a “spell” has been cast. Quiet moments can be undermined by talking, wrapper unwrapping and there was that case of a lovely couple at a Till Fellner concert in DC whose non stop kissing was a constant distraction. (I do hope they were able to find a room…)

    When the music inspires the audience to exhibit or react with awed silence and reverie, that too is a version of a passionate, enthusiastic and truthful audience response — isn’t it?

    Absolutely. Any actor knows the feeling in a theater when an audience is raptly engaged with a play. I think we see/feel that a lot less in classical music, and in fact my students regularly say they wish the audiences they played for were more responsive. Even, I think, in silent ways. I’ve gone to classical concerts for many decades, and I’ve rarely been in an audience whose rapt attention was obvious, while the music was playing. Maybe the absence of coughing is the only sign of that I might see. Normally it’s not till the end that I know what everyone is feeling. Not so in other kinds of performance.

  9. Dave says

    No rights? How hard is it to understand? If I pay to hear a performance of something great, I don’t want to hear anyone else. Audience reaction can enhance a concert, especially in opera, but most of what gets my attention are stupid things that could be avoided if the offending person simply considered the impact their actions have on others. Here’s a good rule: if you wouldn’t do it in a quiet moment at church, don’t do it at a concert. That applies to movies and rock concerts as well, but it isn’t as disruptive with amplification.

  10. Billy T says

    there is a demographic out there that wants these things at a live classical music concert, namely, most of the gen x, gen y and millenials, ie everyone else who is working, has money to spend and find live classical concerts to be too prohibitive.

    i’m part of that demographic, i eat, talk, listen, work, text seemingly all at once. and at a traditional classical concert, only 1 sense is engaged and it’s too restrictive. they should add more color visually and permit more freedoms for the audience.

    i think major symphonies ought to be flexible enough to create music for this demographic.

    the usual concerts are fine and caters to a very specific demographic that we all know is shrinking. so imo, that is not the way to present concerts in the future.

  11. says

    All this talk about “rights” and “freedoms” is very strange. Concert-goers are coming together voluntarily for a common purpose under set of rules of etiquette. Why should one have “rights” in that context to disrupt the experience they are seeking? Did I miss a constitutional provision that says one gets to eat and text anywhere one pleases?

    Mind you, its not just classical performances that enforce these rules of etiquette, though, yes, the silences are longer. Indeed, rock concerts are pretty much alone among indoor (tho not in a bar) performing arts in diverging from these basic rules by virtue of their deafening levels of amplification and seatlessness. When did event-appropriate etiquette become such a crime?

    It’s not a crime at all. But when some notable proportion of the potential audience — as well as a notable sample of musicians and other professionals in the field — start wanting the etiquette to change, then maybe it should change. Can’t y ou imagine some concerts played according to your rules, and some working in other ways?

    Let’s not forget that classical music in past centuries used to be performed with completely different standards of etiquette — and a much more demonstrative audience. That continued in Italy up through the 1950s.

  12. Billy T says

    those who go to concerts voluntarily agree to the set of rules of etiquette but i think many many choose not to participate in live classical concerts because the rules. they are like walls and in the face of shrinking audience, the industry ought to think of ways to facilitate a wider demographic. such as permitting food and drinks in the concert hall for one. adding a visual element to the concert for two.

    look, if the objective is to encourage participation, increase concert attendance, reverse the shrinking concert goer trend, to be sustainable again, the symphonies need to cater to a younger age and can start by removing barriers of entry.

  13. says


    Using the ‘rights’ probably goes too far but, like Billy T pointed out, people ‘voluntary’ are choosing to ignore classical concerts because of these rules of etiquette.

    Loosening of the rules doesn’t have to mean turning these concerts into rock shows where you can do whatever you want and the volume is enormous, although that seems to work for Bang on a Can, where you can find loads of young people. It can be as simple as allowing people to clap or boo. Seriously, the silence inbetween movements is extraordinarily awkward. What is polite about witholding one’s excitement over what they just heard? And if a newcomer does accidentally clap, they get that look that makes them feel unwanted. It’s rather absurd.

    And I’m not sure about your reference to rock shows being the only ones without these rules. Everything is amplified nowadays, even jazz in small venues. The rules against talking or dancing are not only non-existent in every other musical genre but performers in those fields feel like they’re failing if people don’t feel the urge to be active in some way. Hell, even when listening to jazz recordings from the 50s you can hear people cheering over the music when something they like is played. Thelonious Monk would get up and dance himself! Meanwhile, the classical world is concerned with clapping. Clapping! Young people fall asleep at these concerts and the old hat of the classical world are upset about clapping!

    Thankfully these rules are being broken by organizations like Classical Revolution but big orchestras, even when playing new music (see Nico Muhly’s comments on the formality at CONTACT!), are still holding onto these pointless rules.

  14. says

    A lot of the recent Chicago Symphony concerts have included audience clapping between movements. I didn’t notice anyone shushing those folks, and I had joined in in the clapping myself.

    Also, another two barriers to eating and drinking in concert halls: carpeted floors, and upholstered seats.

  15. Drew says

    Today you present a completely fallacious argument.

    Where is it written that the only way to appreciate music or to “care” about it is by creating your own display?

    I’m not opposed to clapping along or dancing. I think it’s great that that can happen in venues where it’s applicable. But why would I feel oppressed by sitting quietly through a symphony concert just because I roared through a Prince concert two nights earlier? I have done both these things and both experiences were rewarding. I didn’t feel cheated because I couldn’t behave the same way in both venues. Why would I? This strikes me as absurd.

    Are we saying that there should no longer be a place for quiet contemplation? Are we saying that prolonged concentration is no longer useful?

    Anyone who thinks they connot enjoy a concert quietly has obviously never been to a great performance where the silence was electrically charged. I reject the argument that the only way to “participate” in performance is by dancing in the aisles or clapping along: a focused silence can also energize a performer.

    I encourage anyone who doubts this to seek out a video of Vladimir Horowitz playing in Moscow. The audience is so engaged it barely takes a breath. The silence is palpable. They seem to be listening as if their lives depended on it.

    Does anyone really think that the opera houses and symphony halls of the world will be turning away customers once they allow people to clap along to Bruckner? Is that all that’s keeping people away? Really?

    My feeling is that once the “classical” world capitulates to these demands: brings in the microphones, the jugglers, the strippers, etc. and encourages the audience to “express themselves” in whatever way they wish, that they will be in for a big let down. Because in the end, you can add all the bells and whistles you want, but if people aren’t interested in the music, they will not be repeat customers.

    Fascinating, Drew. I make a modest suggestion, backing it up with wistful thoughts from some other classical music professionals, including some of the people who actually play the concerts you fear would be disrupted.

    And you’re so shocked that you start thinking of strippers! And you imagine that I’m calling for an end to quiet contemplation! Study your history. Mozart and Handel (to name just two great composers) expected their audiences to react noisily during performances, and would have considered themselves failures if that hadn’t happened.

    My experience, in classical music and elsewhere, is that audiences know how to behave. If they feel free to make noise, they’ll get raptly quiet when the music calls for that.

  16. says

    Sorry in advance for the length.

    I guess I just find it hard to believe that anyone who is likely to actually be interested in classical music is being kept out of the concert hall because of these petty prohibitions. At some point you have to want to sit through 40 minutes of Beethoven, not just try to endure 40 minutes of Beethoven by distracting yourself with your phone and intermittent clapping. And if you don’t want to sit through it then why should you have to? Look, if the goal here is to trick people to get some extra butts in the seats and massage hurting orchestras’ revenues, that’s a business decision and you gotta do what you gotta do. But that’s a conversation for business development departments or something, not for people interested in broader questions about how to best serve music they love.

    On who has the etiquette rules, I made careful to specify “not in a bar”. I like going to bars, and I like to hear music in bars, and I think that these efforts to do chamber music in bars and bar-like venues is great. I’m hoping to finally get to a show at Le Poisson Rouge the weekend after next and am very excited about it. But it’s a different etiquette because its a space with multiple purposes. And while it’s great for some things, it’s kind of hard to fit the CSO in most bars, not to mention major dance and theater, which have similar if not identical etiquette. I was at that CONTACT show that had Nico’s pieces in it, and I agree that the Harris theater is a big hulking space far better suited to opera or dance than the kind of intimate, personal chamber music they were doing, and the atmosphere was stilted. Presenters can always do a better job of choosing an appropriate venue. But the point is there are different levels of appropriate interaction in each that would feel out of place in another.

    It goes to the heart of why Sandow’s comments sometimes feel problematic to me, i.e. this example Sandow uses above with a New Orleans jazz band inspiring dancing through the street. Putting aside his misleading example of the Bernstein performance, which obviously is a special case of history and moment, why should an everyday Beethoven 9th performance and an everyday New Orleans jazz band performance be experienced the same way? Why must we force those people dancing in the street to do it to Beethoven or vice versa? Can’t we just let them have the real thing?

    I think we have all this anecdotal evidence of younger audiences being disproportionately attracted to groups like Bang on a Can because THAT IS WHAT THEY LIKE. It doesn’t make them particularly interested in hearing Schubert art songs. So let people listen to Bang on a Can at their desired volume. And if that means in 20 years, there are fewer Schubert recitals given, then that’s how its going to be. I feel pretty confident that there is enough of a critical mass of people who will still love to perform and listen to Schubert that we’re not facing some kind of Schubert extinction. But when it is performed, let people listen to it the way people who love it want to listen to it. Let them enjoy the quietness and delicacy of Schubert’s melodies in some kind of recital space, unamplified, and don’t force them or the performers to interrupt their concentration for people getting up to go to the bathroom or a round of applause every 3 minutes.

    Let’s have more trust in the judgment of people who seek out the performance of music because they love to know how they want to experience it. I suspect anything else is an exercise in futility.

    P.S. This agony over this clapping thing has got to stop. It’s a useful convention because the audience doesn’t know how a conductor/ensemble/etc. wants to handle a transition between movements and it’s just the nature of the beast that we let it be their prerogative to shape a performance. We give them the freedom to let a quiet movement settle or drive right into the next. Also, it ends up adding a lot of time to a concert with a bunch of movements. The only people who are “concerned” about it are those who act like this one piece of practical performance etiquette is a grave personal affront. We live in a society predicated upon venue specific etiquette, why can’t people accept that this is the etiquette for this particular interaction? I don’t get it.

    At the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth, the audience burst into applause at the timpani solos in the scherzo. That was the normal behavior of audiences back then. When Beethoven’s symphonies came into the active concert repertoire in the 1820s — or, to put it differently, when there started to be regular concerts which were able to have an active repertoire — people in Paris used to shout out, almost involuntarily, at passages they liked. There’s a wonderful account of a German orchestra and audience making eye contact at one moment in the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth.

    I could multiply this with endless examples from past eras. Etiquette changes. And could change again.

  17. says

    A concert venue is not a mosh pit, Mr. Sandow, and a classical music concert is not a rock show. Your persistent attempts to concoct a no-distinction equivalency between the two is wrongheaded, perverse, and, quite frankly, redolent of attempts by unreconstructed relics of the Sixties to raise the level of the pop trash that was their mother’s milk to the same level of respectability and status as the works of deathless genius that constitute the classical music concert repertoire.

    You really ought to cease and desist along these lines as it panders to the populist mentality that has made our present era so barren of understanding and appreciation of our immeasurably rich legacy of great art. Your repeated confusion of the creation of a genuine new audience for classical music with the economic necessity of immediately putting butts into concert venue seats is counterproductive vis-à-vis building genuine new audiences for classical music, and is no answer at all.


  18. says


    My above,

    “Your repeated confusion of the creation of a genuine new audience for classical music with the economic necessity of immediately putting butts into concert venue seats…,”

    should have read:

    “Your repeated confusion of the creation of a genuine new audience for classical music with the immediate economic necessity of putting butts into concert venue seats….”