In the following article, Peter Sachon discusses the “rituals” and traditions associated with classical music performances and examines situations where perhaps new ideas could be implemented. Sachon tackles issues such as audience applause, general etiquette expectations, lighting, dress, and others. He argues that these traditions have created an atmosphere of elitism that is not welcoming for new and unfamiliar audiences. There is no question that these traditions are a hot topic of discussion right now, and Sachon makes a compelling argument for thinking about these issues and planning for the future.
A ritual is the physicalization of a shared belief. A community of people perform rituals in order to reinforce their belief. In a Catholic Mass, it is not enough for the congregation to be told that Jesus died for their sins; they must also eat the bread and drink the wine, representing the body and blood of Christ. This ritual reinforces their collective belief through acting out the story. The ritual is a reflection of the belief.
Rituals of the concert hall reflect beliefs about the symphony. In the hall there are rituals of dress, of repertoire, and even of presentation. With each concert, they reinforce old ideas about the symphony, weighing down the symphony, and the music it plays, in long expired traditions. These traditions alienate most potential new audiences, and keep classical music at arms-length from the larger culture.
The current concert hall rituals are well known to all those who still go to the symphony. The constant parading on and off stage, the awkward unrehearsed bows, the anarchistic (and historically incorrect) rules surrounding applause are a few of them. The tuxedos, the convention-center lighting, the constant tuning; these are others. Every aspect of a concert is as scripted as any Catholic Mass, playing out the same way whether one is in Boise or Boston. Concert hall rituals are so ingrained in many peoples’ thinking about the symphony that it is often difficult for them understand that these preconceptions can, and should, change. These traditions are not part of the “art”, but rather they are vestiges of history. They hold on to symphonic concerts like barnacles to a boat, and should be scraped off before they sink the whole vessel.
Right now these rituals are almost always upheld, even when they are detrimental to the best presentation of the music. For example, recently the New York Philharmonic programmed a premier of Thomas Adés’ piano concerto. Just after intermission, as the audience took their seats, Alan Gilbert, the conductor, and Thomas Adés, the composer and soloist, walked onto stage together to much applause. Each of them took a microphone and together they spoke casually about the piece. The audience clearly enjoyed the interaction and the energy of the room warmed in anticipation of this new piece. After hearing about the compositional process, and Eden, and stars, the audience was eager to hear the music. It was perfect time to begin playing. However, at this delicate moment the rituals of the hall succeeded in being more important than intelligent presentation. The talk had built up anticipation of the premiere. Rather than simply begin, Gilbert told the audience that they both would “be right back”. They put down their microphones and left the stage, departing to a smattering of applause, but it died before they made it off-stage. Silence ruled the hall. Then, as ritual demanded, out came the concert-master; complete with awkward bowing, predictable lighting changes, tepid applause, and yet more tuning. Again, silence in the hall. Then Gilbert and Adés made another entrance. By this time the ritual of entrances and exits and tuning had robbed the hall of the energy built up from intermission and the composer/conductor talk. This unfortunate and inopportune moment; where the audience could barely be bothered to applaud for the soloists second entrance, this is when the music started. Ritual made it so that rather than capitalizing on the anticipation of hearing a new work, the audience was bored just as the piece was starting.
The rules surrounding applause, particularly, reinforce this old idea of classical music as elitist. Recently, I had the opportunity to see the Emerson Quartet at Disney Hall, in Los Angeles. Moments after the first movement of the Mozart Flute Quartet ended, pockets of the audience ignored the ritual of silence between movements and burst into enthusiastic applause (which Mozart would have loved). Other concert goers were visibly surprised, but they politely endured. However, after the next movement many of the audience applauded again. And again after the following movement. After each movement, with each breech of protocol, the traditionalists got more comfortable staring and openly scowling at those applauding.
At intermission, exiting the hall, I overheard a conversation; A man who had been among the outraged regulars had pulled aside a women, a stranger, and he was lecturing her on concert hall etiquette. The words “not a circus”, “disturbing”, and “rude” were used to describe her behavior. She was embarrassed, and I intervened and offered the man a lecture of my own. Unfortunately, it remains common at classical music concerts for members of the audience to be treated as if they were unsophisticated, simply for reacting to the music. And why shouldn’t the audience react? In every other art form, the lighting and the performers make it clear when to applaud. In classical music, you either know or you don’t. You are an educated person of taste, an elite, or you are a rube.
It is worth pointing out that even at this concert, with the Emerson String Quartet, James Galway, and a premiere of a new quartet by Thomas Adés; the hall still was not sold-out. Not even close.
The problem created by these old concert hall rituals is that they imply institutional support of elitism and snobbery. This belief has defined the classical music for a century, with the support of musicians and the symphony. It has been used to hawk various luxury products from cars, to annuities, to mustard. The symphony should stop marketing itself as a refuge for elitism and snobbery. Changing the rituals of the hall is the best place to start the reform. After all, does a symphony really cease to be a symphony if there are no tuxedos?
Obviously, it does not serve the collective good of the industry to alienate new audience members. It’s difficult enough to get people into the hall, and it helps no one to make them regret attending. The rituals of the hall reflect its culture, and it is a culture that needs to be changed. Not only for the health of the industry, but also for the sake of art.
The symphony is not a church, and the rituals of the hall are not sacred. They can be changed, and the symphony is an institution that needs to embrace change. It needs a more enlightened approach as to how it presents the art; the music. If we change the rituals of the concert hall, we can begin to change the symphony itself.