Yesterday’s column, Part 1 of a New Year’s Day interview conducted by E‑mail with Richard Dare, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s new president and CEO, revealed his hopes that all New Jerseyans will experience great music during the next few years. That interview concludes today, showing how performers and audience members alike need to become involved in the process if change is to occur.
Examiner.com asked Richard Dare what sort of audience reaction he believes appropriate at Classical music concerts.
Art, especially music, demands an authentic response of the soul. And the more we inhibit that, the more distant the art tends to become. Sometimes the truest response might be to sit in awe, silently taking in what is happening with a stillness of heart and openness of purpose. Other times it may be to respond with our bodies intuitively and move or applaud or call out. Audiences already do all these things at various times anyway.
I only want us to think about our responses and engage in them consciously, not from a place of rote obedience or misguided fear. I believe the great music we play is powerful enough to withstand any authentic human response to it.
Richard Dare noted that the composer’s expectations should figure in when deciding the fitting audience reaction:
In Mozart’s time, audiences were rather ebullient and judging by the letters he wrote to his father, young Mozart seemed quite pleased by this and indeed encouraged it a great deal. Likewise, Brahms apparently sincerely wanted audiences to applaud between [symphonic] movements as well as after cadenzas [in his concertos] . . . and became rather despondent when they didn’t.
Though recognizing that times change, Richard Dare wants audience members to realize that complete and utter silence during performance hasn’t always been the way.
I suspect it’s all well and good to revise the rules in favor of silence if that’s what contemporary society wants. I only argue that we should understand that these are our own relatively new conventions, not something inviolable that all past composers wanted or even imagined would ever happen.
How are audience members to become aware of this? He suggests we “find more effective ways of communicating these newer mores if we choose to follow them that don’t inadvertently prevent newcomers from joining us and falling in love with this great music too.” So some sort of educational initiative would be in order.
Who better to educate and enlighten audience members than performers, not just soloists and conductors, but also orchestra members? At past NJSO concerts, varying orchestra members have taken a turn before the microphone, giving insightful comments on the composition about to be performed. More and more vocal and instrumental soloists have garnered reputations for addressing audiences in meaningful ways, not lecturing but seeking to engage audience members more fully in the works they are experiencing.
Richard Dare pointed to comments by Alex Ross, The New Yorker magazine’s chief music critic since 1996, whose blog refers in turn to his updated treatment of audience decorum from a 2010 presentation to London’s Royal Philharmonic Society. Both are eye-opening and readers will enjoy the author’s pervading irony. Alex Ross has authored two books about how we listen to music: The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007), a cultural history of music since 1900, and Listen to This (2010).
If stoically silent audiences are a relatively recent development, how did they behave before things changed, and what brought about the change?
E.M. Forster’s 1905 novel Where Angels Fear to Tread, chapter 6, deliciously describes a typical turn-of-the-century provincial Italian opera audience during a performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. The main characters present at the performance are British middle-class Harriet, her brother Philip, and his love interest, Miss Abbott. When the soprano portraying Lucia makes her appearance, Philip recognizes her as their fellow traveler on the train to Monteriano, with whom Harriet was averse to sharing a coach to the same hotel where they were all staying:
Harriet, meanwhile, had been coughing ominously at the drop-scene, which presently rose on the grounds of Ravenswood, and the chorus of Scotch retainers burst into cry. The audience accompanied with tappings and drummings, swaying in the melody like corn in the wind. Harriet, though she did not care for music, knew how to listen to it. She uttered an acid “Shish!”
“Shut it,” whispered her brother.
“We must make a stand from the beginning. They’re talking.”
“It is tiresome,” murmured Miss Abbott; “but perhaps it isn’t for us to interfere.”
Harriet shook her head and shished again. The people were quiet, not because it is wrong to talk during a chorus, but because it is natural to be civil to a visitor. For a little time she kept the whole house in order, and could smile at her brother complacently.
Her success annoyed him. He had grasped the principle of opera in Italy—it aims not at illusion but at entertainment—and he did not want this great evening-party to turn into a prayer-meeting. But soon the boxes began to fill, and Harriet’s power was over. Families greeted each other across the auditorium. People in the pit hailed their brothers and sons in the chorus, and told them how well they were singing. When Lucia appeared by the fountain there was loud applause, and cries of “Welcome to Monteriano!”
“Ridiculous babies!” said Harriet, settling down in her stall.
“Why, it is the famous hot lady of the Apennines,” cried Philip; “the one who had never, never before—”
“Ugh! Don’t. She will be very vulgar. And I’m sure it’s even worse here than in the tunnel. I wish we’d never—”
Lucia began to sing, and there was a moment’s silence. She was stout and ugly; but her voice was still beautiful, and as she sang the theatre murmured like a hive of happy bees. All through the coloratura she was accompanied by sighs, and its top note was drowned in a shout of universal joy.
Thank you, Project Gutenberg.
The question of what brought about the change in the way audiences from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries experience great music remains for another occasion. Alex Ross’ writings trace a remarkable path to the shift. As this Examiner suspected, composer Richard Wagner had something to do with it, but it was a surprise to learn who are more principally to “blame” for our present-day concert experience.
When welcomed as president and CEO at a reception December 11, Richard Dare said concerning his first experience with NJSO: “I was absolutely stunned by how great the music was. This is a really great world-class orchestra. Some orchestras spend all year preparing for a tour. This orchestra tours all year” regularly visiting seven venues throughout the state. Concerning Music Director Jacques Lacombe, he said: “This guy is the real deal.”
Readers are invited to comment below concerning ways to make the concert-going experience less daunting to newcomers. Who do you think brought about the No-Applause Rule, and why? More important, do you agree? If so, why? If not, why not? Please keep to the topic, and remember: Be polite.
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