Concert and Ritual

February 1, 2011

In a post earlier today, I wrote of opportunities that new HD projection of concerts might offer. Some years ago, I wrote about how I saw the rituals that we are faced with if we go to some formalized concerts. I may have been extreme in my viewpoint at that time, and I’m glad to say some things in some places have improved since then; I’m interested in the thoughts of others on this. Here is some of what I said at that time:

The whole atmosphere of the hall is well designed to minimize individuals and focus attention on the one area of the room in which anything at all is suffered to take place. It would almost be a breach of etiquette for anyone connected with the performance of the concert to greet any individual in the audience, even in the foyer. And all care is taken that the castes be kept well apart from each other: the artists have their own door that will facilitate the illusion that they have had no earthly existence before their entrance onto the stage. This is widely at variance with the social posture of European musicians of the nineteenth century (when celebrity musicians chatted with the principal patrons and, at least in New York, orchestra players donned gloves and acted as ushers) and certainly of jazz musicians (though not rock stars) of the twentieth. A few minutes before the appointed hour, before the lights dim (suspending whatever “occasional” reality the paying clients may have seemed to have up till then), the players in the orchestra come onto the stage. A most important thing here is that they must under no normal circumstances betray any suspicion that there are people out in the auditorium. Those people do not exist for them at this point. The rule is that the players may—in fact must to a moderate extent —speak among themselves. The whole phenomenon rather resembles the affectedly casual newsrooms that are sometimes shown behind a television news broadcaster, where every nerve of the visible news staff is concentrated on acting as though there is no television camera in the room. In both instances, we are fortunate enough to see the privileged caste in its holy of holies within which it does what it does where we may never enter.

About the time the lights dim, there is a ceremony of tuning, which has its own conventions. Then a hush comes over the hall as all await the entrance of the one being who will be over it all. The one man who knows the score—the only one who does not play from a part, as it were. His degree of competence, the nature of the work to be performed, all such considerations are at this moment subordinated to the presence of the maestro. The audience now has its big moment: it claps its hands together to thank him for coming to them. They will have few such explicit social functions for the next two hours. Wonderful things may occur, but they will be owned by no one by virtue of his or her presence. They will be enjoyed only on the contracted terms; and a model society is established, albeit a dictatorship of a kind that is tolerable to only a very small percentage of the population—hence the continued exclusivity of concert halls. Only those who are willing and prepared to enjoy music under these circumstances will be present.

The program begins with Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music, composed to be stretched out over a whole evening in the theater. It is followed by a concerto that Mozart wrote for his own performance in a drawing room in Vienna. The concert continues with the ballet music from Verdi’s Vêpres siciliennes and ends with a suite of pieces from the Love For Three Oranges of Prokofief. Each of these works was contrived for very different circumstances, audiences, and playing styles. They are all rendered in the same deadpan, pokerface fashion—with, as it happens, very skillful playing. The average person in attendance knows two or three of the four pieces very well indeed, and there are no jarring surprises in the whole evening, to the inexpressible relief of all concerned.

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