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.

In 1912, people had expectations in transportation and concerts that may not in every detail have survived intact.

Regional opera companies have expressed concern — or, in some instances, alarm — at the success of HD presentation in movie theaters of performances from the Metropolitan Opera and other major houses. Some say that this new facility offering local audiences the opportunity to see the world’s top stars at moderate prices, with production values available only to leading houses, will erode support for local troupes.

Corollary issues may now come to the fore with the arrival of movie-house HD performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, featuring their charismatic, youthful, and preternaturally frisky music director, Gustavo Dudmel. No less an appreciator of the orchestral art than the clarinetist David H. Thomas has announced on his blog:

Although I love a live orchestral performance, I prefer to hear the best orchestras in the best halls. Given a choice, I’d probably opt for the HD broadcast of a great orchestra over a local performance in the flesh. Why? More bang for my buck. Easier access, too.

When the principal clarinetist of the Columbus Symphony is talking like that, you can’t be surprised to see him also predict this:

The days of numerous live performances by live orchestras in local concert halls may be coming to an end. As more top level orchestras broadcast live HD in theaters, small orchestras will feel even more crunched for audiences.

He may well be right, as matters now stand, but I’m convinced that this melancholy decline is not inevitable. Quite the contrary. The new technologies may force us to take invigorating measures that we should adopt anyway. The antidote to seeing their thunder stolen by the big boys, it seems clear to me, is for these local orchestras to offer an experience that audiences can’t get from sitting in a movie theater staring at a big screen and hearing carefully engineered sound over (almost inevitably too-loud) speakers. The exact characteristics of these sorts of offerings will vary –indeed, by their very nature must vary — from place to place. I would suggest, however, that they should almost everywhere involve the renunciation of a felt obligation to ape their “betters” in the metropolis, whose starchy conventions — which, for the men may involve a lot of literal starch — tend to have grown out of the expectations of the robber barons who usually endowed such orchestras, long regarded them as their own, and expected others to imitate their own attitudes and manners at the concerts whose expenses their endowments have continued to defray long after they themselves have shuffled off this mortal coil. The number of people willing to buy into this arrangement, you may have noticed, has been falling off in most places, and the average undoctored hair-color is gray.

Some wholesome practices may not need to be invented, but revived. A practice of Franz Liszt may be extreme but suggestive: he used to greet his audience members at the door, inviting them to put questions on slips of paper into his hat so that he could answer them from the stage between numbers — thus establishing a relationship with his hearers much at variance with the distant noli me tangere that conventional conductors and instrumentalists now normally convey to audiences. That the audiences, in practice, are now dressed very differently from the performers (who are mostly still got up as those robber barons were accoutered for concerts a hundred and more years ago) enforces the feeling of distance. Such distance doesn’t often seem to have existed in those earlier, formative days, when the members of what is now known as the New York Philharmonic acted as ushers at their concerts!

Although a New York Times reviewer has expressed distaste for the close-ups of orchestra players at a Los Angeles cinemacast, she interviewed a young man afterwards who said it was his first orchestral concert and that it made him eager to try one at Lincoln Center. It is not impossible that he may be disappointed in some ways when he does. We may easily forget how little much of the public now knows about orchestral instruments and the playing thereof. While questions of taste will need careful consideration, the facility that modern cameras offer for showing the act of music-making-in-progress is not to be despised as an aid to the appreciation of the activity that is going on. Just as HD-treated opera performances have already changed expectations of the appearance and behavior of opera singers, might HD orchestral performances persuade instrumentalists of what Andrew Porter tried to convince them of in years of New Yorker articles: that the look of undifferentiated boredom that many wear is not obligatory? To show enthusiasm and enjoyment (sincere, not affected) for participating in music would do much to clear the funereal air that hangs about all too many performances. Local orchestras might find ways of showing more of what they do within and without the formal concert frame in their own communities (though much of the dire symphonic labor dispute in Detroit is said to stem from a reluctance to accept new orchestral job descriptions tending in such a direction).

Chamber and recital series are fortunate in that they can much more easily experiment, then correct course quickly, responding most easily to audience reaction. Being more portable and less space-consuming, they can also experiment more readily with variety of environment. It’s true that changing direction by the canoe of a duo or quartet is far easier than turning around a Queen Mary-like symphony orchestra. But, if they continue with their inroads, these HD experiences may raise our consciousness — and consciences — before our concerts suffer the fate of a famous vessel bested by an iceberg while an orchestra sank below the waves, still playing as they always had.