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.