Classical Music: A World of Its Own

The experience of a live classical music concert is unlike any other. There is little visual stimulation, interaction with others during the performance is discouraged, and a laundry list of concert hall traditions oversees the entire event. To some, the conventional classical concert is heaven — to most others, however, a change in how we experience live classical music is much needed in order to keep up with the fast paced world we live in.

I am a fan of the former. Seat me in the Lower Balcony of Orchestra Hall, cue up the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony, and all is right in the world. Most musicians and avid concert goers I know prefer this experience, mainly because we have been trained in the ways of concert tradition and feel right at home in the concert hall. Because I have been a part of this world for so long, it is easy for me to forget that the concert hall isn’t a familiar environment for everyone, and can unfortunately seem like a foreboding place. If classical music is to thrive in the future, this is one of the things that needs to change.

A classical concert is also incomparable to a concert of practically every other musical genre. There is little to no acknowledgement of the audience by the performers (except for maybe the conductor who gives a gesture as he/she walks out on stage or speaks a few words about the program, and also a culminating bow of the orchestra after the performance), the audience is expected to sit in utter repose for the entirety of the concert, and have mercy on your soul if you clap in between movements, cough loudly, or forget to turn your cell phone off. In what other world are these activities frowned upon? Pop and rock concerts are so wildly fun because of the lack of rules. Take pictures with your friends and of the performer(s), sing along to your favorite tune, yell/scream/dance; pretty much do whatever it takes to enjoy yourself. I understand that these are two vastly different cultures, but I can see why a twenty-something such as myself who hasn’t been raised in the “ways of classical music” would much rather attend the latter. It is difficult to sit and listen quietly and actively to something you don’t know much about, music that you think you could like but is introduced in a manner that isn’t applicable to most of society’s everyday happenstance. Additionally, while some people are intrigued by all of the details and inner workings of a classical composition, I feel that most are ultimately left feeling alienated because they fear that they will never be able to enjoy the music if they don’t understand the finer points.

I’m not saying we need to treat classical music concerts like rock concerts— that would be an utter nightmare. I know from firsthand experience that having a group of young adults drinking from flasks and talking during an entire symphony can absolutely ruin a performance, or having a majority of the audience deciding that the delicate moments following the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony is the ideal time to hack a lung. What I am suggesting is revising some concert traditions and having a larger variety of performances to adequately reach out the variety of audiences, connoisseurs and amateurs alike.

1. Applause

Inappropriate applause can distract from a performance, but there are many instances in which applause feels natural and necessary. The standing tradition to hold all applause until the end of a symphony can be problematic because it is not a custom every concert goer is aware of, and more important I feel many people in the audience aren’t even sure why applauding in between movements is frowned upon, they just want to make sure they are not the ones doing something “wrong”. The tradition originates as early as late classical and Romantic composers — Mendelssohn so despised clapping in between movements that all of his concerti are written “attaca” (one movement leading directly into the next) and Mahler was very strict on the “no clapping” policy so that his grand symphonies would not be interrupted. I believe there is room for this tradition to be revised. Perhaps the conductor/administration can decide which movements of a piece are acceptable to applaud after, and can encourage the audience to show their support when appropriate by making a note in the program or even teleprompter-style on a tv screen. I don’t feel that this action would be degrading to the audience members but rather might provide some relief to those who haven’t learned the concert hall customs.

2. Dress code

On some occasions, it can be really fun to dress up to attend a symphony concert and contribute to the overall spectacle and experience. However, I don’t think those who decide not to “dress to the nines” for a symphony performance should feel uncomfortable or out of place. Of course it is important to be respectful, but it isn’t essential to be wearing the finest ensemble from Chanel (as much as I would love to) in order to enjoy Brahms. I would like to encourage more casual dress concerts, for both the audience members and the performers, and potentially deem certain concerts to be “cocktail” attire or “evening wear” in which the orchestra would follow suit. If classical concerts are to cater to the needs of all the people in a society, we have to eliminate factors that can come off as elitist or alienating.

3. Length of performances/cost/programs

Even to a seasoned concert attendee, Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 is a very long time to sit still and listen intently to the music (this symphony clocks in at about an hour and a half). It is an exceptionally gorgeous piece of music, but it is difficult for many to focus on a very demanding listening adventure for so long. Sometimes symphony concerts can be very cathartic in that they are an opportunity to let your mind go and meditate to the music; however, I feel that many people are put off by the length of time they are expected to pay attention and sit quietly. For this reason I feel symphonies should offer a variety of programs of different lengths in order to attract different audiences. Would most young adults want to sacrifice two hours of their time to attend a classical music concert? Probably not, and that’s why they usually don’t. Do busy professionals with families always have a weekend night to spare? Maybe once in a while. As I see it, an hour is a much more feasible amount of time for those who are new to the experience or have a tendency toward restlessness or even just a busy schedule some weeks. A few programs do exist to target these audiences; the CSO provides a series called “Afterwork Masterworks” which start earlier in the evening and are a little over an hour in length, and the Colburn School in Los Angeles promotes a series entitled “Rush Hour” concerts that appeal to the many commuters in and out of the city – why sit in traffic for an extra hour when you could have a glass of wine and enjoy some wonderful music? It is a positive step forward that programs like this exist, but I would like to see a shorter program offered at the CSO more often than four times a year. Creating a series of “happy hour concerts” could be a unique way of reaching out to professionals and younger adults alike — offer a condensed version of that week’s full length program and include a complimentary drink with the ticket. Not only would this promote the social aspect of attending a concert, enjoying a drink or light h’ordeurvres would make anyone feel more comfortable and welcome at a concert.

4. Interaction

I attended a concert given by the Los Angeles Philharmonic last winter. Before the performance the principal trumpet player introduced that evening’s program and a bit about himself and his musical background. It was fascinating. Not only did I learn more about this musician, but I learned about it from him which is so much more interesting than reading a biography in the program during a sleepy slow movement. Every classical musician I have ever met has a story to tell, and the more the audience can relate to the people on stage and understand why they are on stage making this music, the more classical concerts will be recognized as a remarkably engaging and connective human experience.

5. Different venues/ social event/ food & beverage

Before movies, malls, museums, nightclubs, you name it – symphony concerts and operas were one of the main social events for people with diverse background. I certainly feel that the nature of classical concerts has shifted from being primarily social and more focused on the music (which I definitely do not discourage because I believe that the music is the most important factor in a concert), but I think that more could be done to enhance the social aspect of the concert experience. Having concerts in venues outside the concert hall and allowing the audience to sit or roam at their leisure (the Art Institute or the Field Museum at night would both be so hauntingly cool), and allowing drinks inside the concert hall or on a select level of the concert hall renovated to allow drinks are merely a couple of the solutions that could aid in welcoming back the social side of attending concerts.

6. Understanding of music/not dumbing it down

Classical music should always be presented as what it is and what it was created to be: a profound and personal work of art that explores the depths of the human soul. Many musicians and scholars find great satisfaction in dissecting the masterworks of the world’s greatest composers, but it isn’t necessary in order to enjoy and revel in the beauty of these compositions. I can appreciate when conductors want to play snippets of the symphony for the audience to listen for, or share an anecdote that relates to the composition, but sometimes as musicians we forget that not everyone knows what a Neapolitan sixth chord is, and not everyone has to. It can be enough to understand that this is how one human being chose to express angst, joy, despair, sorrow, triumph, and everything in between. It is enough to know that this music was created to remind us what it means to be human, which is why I know classical music still holds a special place in the world today.

7. Technology in the concert hall

We have officially reached the age of being plugged in all the time. Cellphones are never out of an arm’s length and iPads and laptops make it easy to stay informed and entertained no matter where you are. Personally, I enjoy the premise of going to the symphony and muting my phone for two hours— it becomes time for myself and the music, a chance to “unplug” and give my brain a rest from Trivia Crack or countless e-mails. However, I feel that concert halls should start being more sympathetic to the changing times by using the overabundance of technology to their advantage instead of always sternly reminding concert goers that use of “cellphones, pagers and cameras are strictly prohibited.” First, if a concert hall would like to stand by the policy of not allowing technology to be used during a performance (which I much prefer), it needs to be conducted in a different manner. Telling someone that he/she must silence his/her phone and not touch it for two hours never makes much of a difference. No matter the scolding by the ushers or how many times a cellphone will ring obnoxiously during the most tender moments of a performance, people most of the time won’t change this behavior just because they are told to. Instead, it is a practice that needs to be suggested in a more positive light that encourages the audience that the absence of their devices is for the overall benefit of their concert experience. Label it as a chance to “unplug”, a chance to take a break from the hectic life of always being reachable while staring at a screen. Make the audience feel as though it is good for them to be away from their cellphones and take the time to enjoy the beautiful art form that is in front of them. There are, however, ways that I feel technology should definitely be welcomed before and after a concert. I have on numerous occasions witnessed concert goers taking pictures before or after the performance, only to have an usher hurry over and demand that they delete the picture immediately. Not allowing professional camera and recording equipment is one thing, but someone taking a picture of the orchestra standing on stage after a performance that he/she was hoping to share is actually for the benefit of the orchestra. Concert halls should be doing exactly what Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra encourage— feel free to take pictures and share that you are here. Not only is it easy and free publicity for the orchestra, it allows the audience to take home a small reminder of the experience they had.

By Anna Scheider

Photo by Todd Rosenberg ©.