Sunday, May 28, 2017

Concerts and Audiences

This is going to be one of those posts on a theme that I don't really have a tag for. I'm going to talk about audiences and the effect different audiences might have on performers and performances. My evidence comes from having attended thousands of concerts and played hundreds of concerts, but, of course, it has no statistical rigour. This is just anecdotal, but based on a lot of experience.

Audiences make a difference. But without interviewing them all, or collecting personal data, how can you claim to know anything about any particular audience? The answer is by the way they behave. There is also another level, but it is so subtle that it may be easily misread, and this is the feeling a performer gets from the audience.

Some data: I have attended seven concerts so far on this trip (tonight is Rimsky-Korsakof at the Teatro Real) in which I have heard one chamber orchestra, one pianist, two operas, and three symphony orchestras. Except for the chamber orchestra (hall seated about 700) and the piano recital (hall seated around 1,200), each of these concerts had an audience of perhaps 2,000 people.

At home, in my relatively small town in Mexico* (though renowned as a cultural centre) with audiences of between 200 and 800, at every single concert I have attended, dozens of concerts at least, a significant number of people clap after the end of the first movement of the first piece. This diminishes over the course of the concert as they, presumably, notice that a lot of people are not clapping after each movement and by the end of the concert, the last piece usually goes without any inter-movement applause.

Why do I mention this? After all, every season there are hosts of articles chiding the classical music concert scene for its fuddy-duddy rules about dress and not clapping between movements and boring old classical "canon". The Guardian has a long-running interview series in which they ask every interviewee their opinion on clapping between movements and the expected, nay, required, response is how totally ok it is. Leaving all that to one side, clapping between movements is probably the most salient item in audience behaviour with which one can estimate how used to attending concerts they are. An audience that claps whenever there is a momentary cessation of sound is one that is not very used to classical concerts.

So what have I seen in Europe? Not once in any of the concerts has a single person out of the thousands and thousands of audience members clapped between movements. Not one person, not one time. In fact, in the Grigory Sokolov concert, they didn't even clap between pieces! He structured the concert with all Mozart in the first half and all Beethoven in the second half and the audience waited until the end of each half before clapping. And it was not through apathy! No, at the end of the first half there was so much and so long-lasting applause that Sokolov had to come back and bow four times!

This is just one indictor, of course, but it is a very striking one. Other things I have noticed about European audiences is that they are not particularly elderly. North American orchestras are constantly worrying about their ageing audiences who are a sea of grey heads. Yes, there are lots of older people in the European concerts I have seen, but there are also lots of younger people as well. I have seen many, many groups of young people and lots of young couples. Who also, by the way, do not clap between movements.

Also the concerts are well-attended, every one I have been to has had at least 85 to 90% attendance, so they must like what they hear. What are they hearing? For North American audiences what I have been attending might seem rather esoteric: obscure operas and pianists, Shostakovich symphonies and concertos, Stravinsky? But no, this is the standard concert fare. There are lighter programs, but they seem to be in the minority. There are a lot of music promoting organizations in Madrid and I picked up some brochures for the coming season. Let me walk you through the 17/18 season with Ibermúsica:

  • London Symphony, cond. Bernard Haitink in two programs of Mendelssohn, Brahms and Beethoven (symphonies and concertos)
  • Evgeny Kissin, piano, playing Beethoven sonatas and Rachmaninoff
  • Saint Petersburg Philharmonic, cond. Yuri Temirkanov playing Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Haydn and Rimsky-Korsakov
  • Bamburg Symphony cond. Jakub Hrusa playing Sibelius (violin concerto) and Dvorak
  • Orchestra of Castille and Leon cond. Andrew Gourlay playing Rueda, Glazunov and Stravinsky
  • Orquesta de Cadaqués and choir, cond. Giandrea Noseda, Mozart Requiem
  • Daniel Barenboim, piano
  • London Philharmonic, cond. Vladimir Jurowski, Grieg and Tchaikovsky
  • Gürzenich Orchester Köln, cond. François-Xavier Roth, Beethoven and Bartók
  • Munich Philharmonic, cond. Pablo Heras-Casado, Haydn, Bartók and Dvorak
That is about half of what one organization is offering next season. There are lots of others! The Grandes Interpretes season, for example, devoted to solo recitalists, is bringing Daniil Trifonov, Andras Schiff, Leif Ove Andsnes, Angela Hewitt, Piotr Anderewski and Grigory Sokolov among others. They have presented Sokolov in almost every season since 2000.

You know, the constant drumbeat of articles in the North American and British press about all the manifold problems of the classical music world are really just a part of the picture. What they really reflect is not a horrible crisis in classical music--in Germany more people attend classical music concerts than attend soccer matches--but rather a problem in North American culture--less so in Britain.

To put it bluntly, but correctly, we're hicks.  Yes, I say "we" because I grew up in this environment and only through chance wandered away from it.

The problem playing for audiences who are not accustomed to classical concerts, but rather to pop music, is that they really aren't with you. If you do anything unusual or challenging, they pull in their ears and clap half-heartedly and won't come to your next concert. Given that atmosphere, you will rarely play your best and will be cudgelling your brain to try and figure out how to please the inherently unpleaseable audience. This leads to crossover and pops concerts and classical music lite. It's not a good trend and it is a self-defeating one. At the end of the day you just cheapen the music itself.

What I have described applies to small and medium urban areas, but not to all large metropolises. In North America, New York, San Francisco, Toronto and Montreal are exceptions. I have only spent a lot of time in one of those cities and less time in two others so I can't speak from much experience, but I suspect that the picture I have painted is somewhat true even there, but with lots of exceptions and caveats.

Please let loose in the comments!

Our envoi is the Sibelius Violin Concerto. The soloist is Viktoria Mullova, the soloist in the Bamburg Symphony concert listed above:

UPDATE: *I should mention that this town in Mexico has a very significant American and Canadian population and the concert-going audiences are at least 90% from this group.


Anonymous said...

"An audience that claps whenever there is a momentary cessation of sound ..." Hmm... I wonder if they'd clap not after, but during a performance of 4'33". Come to think of it, that might make the piece slightly less insufferable.

I was startled by your comment about soccer matches. But now I see that surely you mean only Bundesliga games (18 teams). No way more people attend classical music concerts than soccer matches.

Years ago, I noticed that East-European audiences clap in synchrony, whereas Western audiences clap as white noise. I always thought there must be deep meaning behind this phenomenon (do Easterners feel the urge to become their own percussion instrument?) but I never came to any satisfying conclusion. Any theory?

Bryan Townsend said...

I was startled when I read that statistic about attendance at classical music concerts versus soccer matches, but that came right from the German orchestral league. Here is the link:

But yes, you are correct, they are comparing to Bundesliga games. But perhaps that was to ensure apples to apples? After all, if we are to count all soccer matches, then we would have to count all classical concerts?

I noticed the audience in Italy clapping in synchrony when they were begging for an encore, but no, I have no theory on that!

Anonymous said...

The health of classical music in Europe is very good news indeed. Perhaps Justin Bieber and Kanye West haven't yet destroyed the musical ear of the entire human race!

Bryan Townsend said...

There's a lot of American pop music playing in casual restaurants, but no, it does not seem to have taken over the culture.

Marc Puckett said...

I think I'd probably dispute your 'hicks' observation, were there to be anything much gained by doing so-- I mean, I agree with your post as a whole. It just seems to me that 'hicks' implies some regional or class distinctions that aren't necessary to the argument: it is a lack of literary and music education, whether that lack happens in Podunk or Springfield or Galveston. We, faced with something new (at least if our natural curiosity and reasonableness hasn't been left to wither uncultivated), we try to 'get our minds around' that new thing, don't we? and so it is with new (new to us, newly made) music, I hope.

Bryan Townsend said...

Marc, I was hoping someone would give me some pushback on the "hicks" comment. I put it in as a kind of zinger, but may not have hit my mark. The whole idea of class distinctions is a minefield, of course, but one that we in classical music, and particularly in this blog, traverse on a regular basis. How can we acknowledge the origins of much classical music in the world of the European aristocracy while both accepting the wonderful things that have come from that and rejecting the invidious nature of class distinction? I think it is through making the music accessible to anyone who has the capacity to enjoy it, which is what the classical music world, by and large, does. The problem really is, just as you say, that the typical environment in North America tends to leave a lot of our potential for aesthetic appreciation withering, uncultivated.

Christopher Culver said...

Madrid might seem richer than many North American venues, but when I lived in the city I definitely felt I was in a musical backwater. Classical music seems to have stopped with Bartok and Shostakovich there, concerts with later 20th-century composers or contemporary music were comparatively rare. Even many Spanish composers of recent decades were easier to hear in France or Germany than on their home turf.

Bryan Townsend said...

Could be, could be! I just missed a concert with music by Sofia Gubaidulina because I was coming back from Bologna that day. And I haven't investigated specifically contemporary promoters. But I'm sure there would be more of the newest music in the UK, Netherlands, France and Germany.

Will Wilkin said...

That Ibermúsica calendar looks a lot like our New Haven fare, which is thus "standard fare" to me. But I realize this little city packs a much bigger musical punch due to the Yale School of Music, so we have not only the NHSO but also the Yale Philharmonia and the Yale Symphony, plus a lot of other chamber ensembles and dozens of student recitals (VERY good, and diverse challenging solo/chamber repertoire!). Plus the Institute for Sacred Music at the Yale Divinity School gives us a few oratorios (Handel every year but also contemporary works), and usually a Bach mass or other big works, plus organ and choral and early music concerts.

Attendance? The oratorios and masses always fill the large church or Woolsey Hall, the symphonies sometimes nearly fill Woolsey hall, but not always, and the many many other concerts range from mostly-full Sprague Hall to very sparse. The crowds are predominantly much older than me (I'm 51), and when young people are noticeable they seem mostly to be YSM students themselves, drawn from all over the world. The local general public in attendance are mostly much older than me.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, if you are right next to a major university then you have access to all sorts of concerts you wouldn't otherwise. This is one of the exceptions I was thinking of. Heck, McGill University alone puts on 300 concerts a year.