Monday, 6 September 2010

Concert free for all?

If you read Jane Austen's novels or Mozart's letters it becomes clear that audiences at concerts were more animated than is allowed today. Austen talks of comings and goings, people explaining the music etc., and Mozart makes it clear that when they heard a passage they enjoyed, the audience felt free to applaud. Also, Haydn's symphonies with their commanding openings, were calls to attention for inattentive audiences.

Some of these attitudes survive today in the theatre. Ballet audiences feel free to applaud whenever they see something they like, whether the music stops or no. Similarly in Italy the practice of applauding (or booing arias), and repeating them as necessary, seems to have survived. The English habit of sitting on their hands throughout a symphony is gradually being eroded by American (I think?) habit of applauding each movement.

There is, of course, the world of a difference between interrupting a performance to show genuine appreciation and simply talking or fidgeting through inattention or boredom. To a certain extent, audience behaviour is conditioned by the location of the concert; venues like the Royal Festival Hall do not encourage people to wander about or stretch their legs. Whereas if you are in the Albert Hall during the Proms, a limited amount of movement is acceptable, and if you have a box all to yourself, then you can get away with all sorts of shenanigans.

Performing groups are worried that the constraints of a classical concert are preventing young people from coming. So groups experiment with other formats; concerts at the Round House, late night events at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The problem is mixing the two, as old fogies like me get rather comfortable with existing norms.

All this has popped into mind, because Jonathan Harvey has rather sparked a debate, but I'm rather with Fiona Maddocks in her comment in yesterday's Observer.

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