When Roman priests requested that their audiences “favor them with silence” two millenniums ago, they probably did not have to contend with the electronic gadgets or crass behaviors polluting our modern lives, most notably our cultural venues, but they were definitely on to something. While we do not routinely have cult ceremonies any more, there are still enough occasions for the die-hard aficionados of live performances to pine in seething desperation for the Almighty Silence amidst a tumultuous ocean of unruly philistines.
As summer has drawn to an end, the 2008-2009 cultural season is now underway. Last year I attended over seventy classical music concerts and a dozen operas, mostly in the Washington, DC area, with a few in New York City for good measure. While all those performances varied widely in genre, scope and, dare I say, quality, the most challenging part of an afternoon or evening at the opera house or concert hall was definitely the ever-present possibility, which often materialized, of some unwelcome distraction spoiling the enjoyment.
Among cognoscenti, the most common, and apparently commonly reviled, breach of protocol is neighbors freely and loudly exchanging opinions, sometimes with themselves, about what is happening on stage, as if 1) their seatmates couldn’t hear or see for themselves or 2) their comments were particularly enlightening (hasn’t happened yet). A couple liberally swapping observations about the admittedly spectacular singing at the GWU’s Lisner auditorium during the Washington Concert Opera’s concert of Bellini’s I Puritani compelled my neighbor and me, perfect strangers one minute, tightly united allies the next, to shush them forcibly across the couple of empty rows between us. And if a couple of intermittently cooing lesbians were obviously finding the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Mahler’s 5th symphony at Strathmore quite amazing, and rightfully so, I would have much preferred they had kept their amazement to themselves.
At the wrong time of the year, disturbances become even more wide-spread, and wide-spreading. In early March, the Lang Lang recital at the Kennedy Center was badly spoiled for everybody in my section by an obviously sick child who was sniffling and coughing his heart out while sitting on his stoic father’s lap. Two other memorable instances of the noise/germs combination also happened last winter, which has decidedly become the season of my discontent, during otherwise totally engaging performances of the Pathétique by the National Russian Orchestra at the Avery Fisher Hall and the Brandenburg Concertos by the St. Luke Chamber Ensemble at the Kennedy Center. It is highly unlikely that Tchaikovsky or Bach would have appreciated the relentless sniffling cadenzas added to their masterpieces by cold-ridden neighbors, and neither did I.
Beside season-related annoyances, another major peeve to be encountered all year long is patrons eating and drinking as if they were in desperate need of extra calories. (Let’s face it, most Americans are not.) If music be the food of love, then why can’t some people enjoy a live performance without loudly stuffing their faces? Why would someone wait for the delicate canzonetta of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, at the Kennedy center last February during a benefit concert for the NSO Young Soloists’ Competition, to unwrap a piece of candy V-E-R-Y S-L-O-W-L-Y? Maybe as some revenge against his wife, who had dragged him there? Fortunately, he did it only once, unlike the young boy who kept on digging into his Skittles bag during Sol Gabetta’s fired-up interpretation of Shostakovich's cello concerto with the NSO again. Maybe some revenge against his mom, who had dragged him there?
Occasionally, it’s not the sound, it’s the smell. While not quite as annoying, it is still a drag, but at least an avoidable one if you don’t mind closing your nose and breathing through your mouth. In the space of a single week last spring, I had to put up with a pretty virulent BO from a gigantic man sitting right in front of me at Strathmore for the Leif Ove Andsnes recital. The artist, although in spitting distance, seemed completely unfazed and gave a truly inspired performance. An equally headache-inducing perfume cloud was relentlessly exuding from a well-dressed woman at the Kennedy Center for a Saturday night NSO concert. Luckily, she had been directed to the wrong seat and moved to another section. This fortuitous turn of events helped me fully enjoy Julian Rachlin’s thoughtful rendition of Shostakovich’s haunting violin concerto.
Other times, audience members are considerate enough to remain quiet, but engage in activities that make you wonder about their reason for being in a concert hall in the first place. This past December, on a rainy Sunday night, while the glitterati crowd was getting ready for the full-blown schmooze fest that is the Kennedy Center Honors, the daily Millennium Stage was exiled upstairs, but treated the little people to a brilliant performance by the Virginia Virtuosi. While they were delivering catchy acoustic versions of songs from Prince’s Purple Rain album, a young woman was sitting quietly a couple of rows ahead of me, totally engrossed by her book. Besides the obvious disrespect shown to the artists, reading a novel or the program can become problematic for the surrounding concert-goers as well. While the activity itself is usually conducted silently, more often than not the readers keep busy by turning crisp pages with sticky fingers while fidgeting around to catch some light, kicking a couple of nearby seats in the process.
Sometimes, I found myself in situations so unexpected that a double, occasionally triple, take was necessary. How about the older gentleman next to me who suddenly picked up his set of keys and started to very methodically clean his ears with one of them during the BSO opening season concert at Strathmore last fall? All the better to hear the music with, I guess. Still at Strathmore, during the first movement of Brahms’ violin concerto with Cho-Liang Lin and the National Philharmonic last spring, I realized that an intermittent air-sucking sound was coming from a nearby elderly woman with tubes coming out of her nose and apparently connected to a breathing apparatus by her feet. Mercifully, I was able to take advantage of the break between the first and second movements to dash up a few rows until I was at a safe distance from Darth Vader and her undesirable accompanying soundtrack.
Every so often, disturbances come from the most unlikely source. A while back, as I was slowly slipping into a state of blissful immersion in Mahler’s 9th symphony at Strathmore, I heard the screeching sound of Velcro being manipulated, here we go again, V-E-R-Y S-L-O-W-L-Y. I turned around and realized that the culprit was, of all people, an usher. At the Salute to Slatkin concert this past June at the Kennedy Center, as our minds started to soar during Yo-Yo Ma’s exquisite rendition of Bloch’s "Schelomo" for Cello and Orchestra, we were rashly and repeatedly pulled back to earth by an usher absent-mindedly moving her arms, thus causing her bangles to add a mood-breaking rattle to the music. Is it so darn hard to get good help these days?
Two of the most frequent complaints from concert-goers are electronic devices and coughing. I have to admit of being lucky in one department because I have rarely come across cell phones ringing while they should have been turned off. Of course, I had a young woman furiously typing on her BlackBerry when Mozart’s Requiem had already started last summer at the Avery Fisher Hall, but she put it down rather quickly, no doubt after firming up some all-important plans for the rest of the evening. Ah, Priorities! Coughing is another story. While it is to a certain degree uncontrollable, it does remain a major grievance. A few times I have heard the NSO announcer politely asking patrons to refrain from it. The orchestra’s powers-that-be should also be praised for having an etiquette page in the programs reminding their patrons about common courtesy: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” What remains to be seen is how many people find it, read it and, last but not least, heed it.
Speaking of unspoken rules, it has been noted that, occasionally, part of the audience claps “at the wrong moment,” which typically means between movements. While Leonard Slatkin and Lang Lang publicly acknowledged during their NSO’s Afterwords Q&A that they “like it,” purists never fail to deeply resent this total verboten violation to the sacrosanct integrity of a piece. However, I have to admit that after an exceptionally intense part, it is a real blessing to have a window of opportunity to release all the built-up tension. So what was I supposed to do at Carnegie Hall last March, when the crowd erupted into spontaneous, unanimous and prolonged applause after Joshua Bell masterfully wrapped up the infectious, multi-faceted first movement of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal? I have to confess that instead of sitting on my hands, which I had resorted to quite successfully in the past, I shamelessly gave in and whole-heartedly joined the unwashed. Purism, be damned… for once!
Collective rapture is a truly unique experience, and while being part of a crowd automatically makes one subject to external interferences, the magical reality of live performances is too exceptional to let a few bad apples ruin it for the dedicated audience. When the connection happens among the holy trinity of composer, performer and listener and everybody embarks on the same transcendental journey into the composer’s psyche, the bonding power of music takes over, the universe aligns, time becomes suspended… and then the inevitable program falls on the floor. Of all my ventures in concert halls and opera houses throughout the years, I can say that I have heard at least one program fall every single time. In fact, it has come to the point where I almost feel that no performance is complete without the familiar thump.
Hope springs eternal, they say, so the faithful keep hoping. Hoping for people to understand that in opera the overture is part of the performance and should command the same respect, that introducing kids to live entertainment is a good thing, but preparing them for it is even better, and that rushing out while the last note is still ringing in the air is unforgivably rude. Yes, parking’s a bitch, it’s probably getting late, and you may have a long way to go, but think about the musicians and singers, who have often come an even longer way to bring us the gift of Hegel’s fourth art and illuminate our lives. “Without music, life would be a mistake,” claimed Frederick Nietzsche. And he was right. I'm going back for more.