Tuning the Concert

Gold Arts Award Portfolio

To cry or not to cry August 29, 2010

How emotional do we/can we/ should we get at concerts?

Classical music is emotive, but there is this problem that you are meant to go through an inner psychological journey, rather than outwardly expressing this journey.

This may not be helped by our British culture. Imagine a stranger wailing on your shoulder at a concert. You just wouldn’t know what to do!

  1. Do you offer a hankie?
  2. Reprimand them and tell them to keep a stiff upper lip?
  3. Or do you ignore them and hope the problem will go away?

I found myself at the Prom on Sunday night where Sir John Eliot Gardiner was conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Greig’s Piano Concerto was simply beautiful and I constantly struggled to hold back my tears. To be fair I was feeling emotional before I entered the concert hall, but none-the-less the music augmented this feeling.

I was in a quandary: to cry or not to cry? Was is socially inappropriate? Will people think I am silly for crying or a fool for letting my emotions run so array?

It was the fact that I was surrounded by hundreds of people in the arena that was the problem, as they made me feel so self-conscious. Unlike listening to a CD in my own bedroom, the concert audience has over the last few decades assumed a certain code of behaviour demeaned appropriate. To my knowledge this does not include loud sobbing.

The audience dictates the mood of a concert, not just the performers. Furthermore, performers frequently cite that what they most love is getting a vibe back from the audience. If the audience only reveals a glimpse of their reaction, how is a performer going to perceive this when they have a hundred and one other things to think about? I’m certain that frequently there is a lack of interaction between the performers and audience. If the audience doesn’t give the performers anything, the performers cannot give it back.

The concert is also meant to be a collective experience. However, if we don’t express what we are feeling at the time and then in the interval we are too shy to discuss how the music moved us, it is very difficult to gage how others are feeling. We are not sharing the experience. Apart from it obviously being cheaper to all go and hear the same orchestra play live, it makes you question why we choose to go to concerts with family and friends. (To be fair, I know some who prefer their own company at concerts, so that they can properly focus on the music.)

Therefore, I would argue that we should reconsider this closed inner reaction to classical music and see if we can open up to be a more expressive audience (perhaps even as expressive as the performers!).

It may mean that concert promoters or performers need to think about how they can modify people’s behaviour. Do you get them clapping along or force them to stand up and hope that they may dance/move to the music? Or do we need to make peopel feel comfortable to show their emotions? Whatever method used, I can see how it could mutually benefit both performers and audience.

As a footnote, I will add that I am not necessary suggesting one should cry through all performances. One could argue that it does not enhance the experience, because through the tears the stage is all a blur and all anyone can hear if you blowing your nose like a trumpet!

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3 Responses to “To cry or not to cry”

  1. It was an amazing performance, but for me uplifting rather than tear-jerking. The finale of the Grieg always makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up!

  2. Ben Hines Says:

    This is a really interesting question – how do we express our emotion in concerts. I for one am often stuck as to what to do too – for example the end of Mahler’s 1st movement of his 3rd symphony – 35 minutes long – usually leaves the audience spellbound and amazed – it is so very intense. The audience is metaphorically crying out to express themselves, but protocol doesn’t allow them to! They are not meant to clap, shout, cry. Instead there is a feeble hum or sigh – which does little to acknowledge what they have just witnessed and heard.

    And this is the problem – protocol – the appropriate way to behave at a concert. Rock concerts are completely different – they encourage the audience to express themselves very naturally – arm waving, singing, screaming, crying – the whole lot. And sure the musicians love it. The audience in rock concerts are essentially in a state of worship. Similarly classical music evokes that same desire to express ourselves – yet it is inappropriate.

    I say lets revolt! Stuff the stuffy classical elite – the “musos” who tut-tut if someone coughs or clap between a movement. It is these attitudes which stop classical music enjoying a broader audience and following.

    It is a bit like Wimbledon and the tennis. The best day ever at Wimbledon was the middle Sunday in 1991 where for the first time, due to rain delays in the 1st week, they opened up on Sunday to catch up with the matches. They had a free-for-all first come first serve ticket policy. What happened is you had the true fans, not the debenture seat holders arrive and the crowd started to express themselves. The first Mexican wave happened hat day in Wimbledon. There was far more cheering and raucous behaviour. It was fantastic – and the players loved it. I remember Martina Navratilova saying it was the best crowd she had ever played in front of at Wimbledon.

    Do you think in Beethoven’s day audiences sat dead quiet? Some audience’s stormed out if they didn’t like the music – they certainly expressed themselves! I am not sure, but I do wonder if there would have been quite a bit more ambient noise in the auditoriums back then.

    So let’s experiment – lets revolt! I am really hoping to get to see the Berlin Philharmonic tonight at the Proms – maybe I should do something radical!

  3. The “between movement” debate is a perennial one. They say there should be no clapping between movements because the pause is part of the performance, and so it should be left as silence to allow people to contemplate. If it was completely silent, fair enough, but it isn’t. There’s coughing, murmuring and people shuffling in their seats. I’d actually prefer to hear applause to mask all this.

    During the music is another matter. Audience noise can ruin a quiet passage, break the spell. People can’t help coughing (although I usually manage not to even if I have a cold) but people who talk or whatever during the music are just antisocial. They aren’t the “true fans” of classical music, as in your Wimbledon example, they are people who have gone to the concert for whatever reason but actually find it rather boring so are restless. I think you’ll find the reason the vast majority of people don’t go to classical concerts has nothing to do with a stuffy image, but rather that they simply aren’t interested in the music – and I see no reason why they should be.


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