...and on the final note of the bass clarinet line, someone coughed and then said, ‘Sorry!’ - it ruined the moment…"
Mark Elder describing an atmosphere breaking interruption in a recent performance of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony. You know the bit? After that beautiful clarinet solo in the first movement where the bass clarinet takes over on four unbearably quiet descending notes then a brief pause before hell is unleashed? A misplaced cough can ruin a hushed moment for the audience and in this case, as they are the only four notes the bass clarinet plays in the whole symphony, it can ruin their night too. If you go to or perform in a concert at this time of year, the chorus of coughing that marks the end of a movement ranges from the sleeve stifled hack to the full on attention seeking consumptive death rattle.(Conspiracy theorists and hacks, note the non capitalization).
I think we can probably all agree that not managing or bothering to stop coughing, or at least trying to make it quieter is annoying and at worst disruptive. But what about concert etiquette in general? Are there a whole set of unwritten rules for classical music concert going? Do we all know and agree what they are? A friend of mine told me last week that she finds the atmosphere intimidating at orchestra concerts, she feels like she might do something wrong without even realising. That’s not good, and I as a player I don’t want anyone to feel like that.
Last week was the conference of the Association of British Orchestras (ABO). The panels were mainly made up of managers and arts professionals (there was one panel of 3 players talking about musicians as leaders). Topics covered were vast and it was tricky following it all on twitter - naturally I was working elsewhere. After various discussions of importance regarding funding, diversity and the like it got down to the nitty gritty and the old lets discuss orchestral concert wear again but never do anything about it. I’m tired of this discussion, it’s a red herring if you think changing your outfit is going to revolutionise the orchestral world - we’ll all just look different. You might be surprised to know that nobody has ever asked me what I want to wear, it’s always discussed by the people running the show or watching the show, not the players. For the record, I hate tails. Apart from the fact that they are so old fashioned, they aren’t designed to look good sitting down; all the cummerbund, waistcoat and shirt stuff bunches up in the middle. With multiple layers of material they are hot and uncomfortable which makes my job a bit harder. Most conductors these days don’t do tails so I really don’t see the problem with players wearing something else - until I went onto twitter. No sooner was the subject of not wearing tails brought up, the first response that popped up was something along the lines of,
“I like that they look smart, I don’t want to see them playing in shorts and T shirts!”
I don’t know about you, but I am aware of several alternatives in between, which although could be described as a compromise, don’t really constitute either ‘dumbing down’ or the end of Western civilisation. The ABO also discussed football clubs and their community work. What can we learn from them? It turns out, quite a lot. Let’s leave aside community work for now though - football clubs change their clothes every season and charge people a small fortune to buy replicas. I’m not suggesting we do that, but football fans don’t moan about how much better they looked in the good old days, they are interested in the way the team play and the results; everybody accepts the sartorial change and moves on - can we do that? Please? There are more important things to worry about. I really don’t think prospective audiences are going to come/not come because of a slight change in dress code; the music we play and the emotional and intellectual depths it mines just aren’t that superficial. Yet.
After telling us about coughgate in rehearsal, it was quite a surprise to hear Mark Elder tell us that he would pause after the third movement ‘for applause’. Now, one never likes to take the appreciation of an audience for granted, but if you know the Pathetique, you’ll know that the third movement is as barnstorming and climactic a piece as ever was written to finish a symphony - except in this case it doesn’t and is followed by a heart breaking adagio of a fourth movement. I’m not going to go into the whys and wherefores about what it means - a suicide note, gay/not-gay etc etc or there’ll be a pussy riot, but there has often been debate about applause at this point in the piece and indeed in between movements in general. Stop groaning at the back, this is important stuff!
Personally, I don’t have a problem with it. I actually find the people who shush the clappers more annoying, but the people who clap the moment a piece finishes to showboat their superior knowledge of a piece? I’d reserve a special place in purgatory for them where they are forced to listen to crossover music forever.
I mentioned the possibility of clapping after the third movement on twitter (@flutelicious) and it was retweeted. A lot. I was quite taken aback by the response. Some people seemed relieved, as if they’d been hiding in some kind of responsive clapping closet and could finally come out. Others preferred not to clap but respected other peoples right to free clapping. Some people thought it an abomination and that it was disrespectful to Tchaikovsky. One tweeter even said that Jurowski had addressed the audience and told them not to clap because the “third movement was Tchaikovsky’s evil music and one shouldn’t applaud evil…” I’m not entirely sure if somebody was having a laugh there… When we’ve performed it with Gergiev, he holds one hand up towards the audience to stop applause and segues straight into the last movement. He does that with lots of pieces though - busy schedule I guess. I think the worst outcome is often when a few people clap, a few shush and the conductor ploughs on. The first few bars of the adagio are obliterated and everyone loses out.
Is it right for a conductor to tell the audience how to react? If you’re going to tell them when they can and can’t applaud, are you also going to tell them how loud the applause should be at the end? I know of one conductor who refused to perform an encore because the audience didn’t applaud with enough enthusiasm for his/her liking. There have been plenty of stories in the last 12 months of soloists and conductors throwing out kids, throwing out cough sweets and generally throwing their toys out of the pram and I do worry that sooner or later people are going to be to so scared of doing the wrong thing, that they won’t do anything. Isn’t it better to go by your gut instinct? - well the audience did at the Barbican. They got a pre-emptive strike in and clapped each individual song in Berlioz, Nuits d’ete. When the end of the third movement of the Pathetique finished, it wasn’t such a big deal (because it really isn’t) and the majority of the audience joined in the clapping which Mark acknowledged. I felt an enormous sense of relief.
There are rules and conventions wherever there are gatherings of people, and concerts are no exception. However whilst the musical education of our youth is being decimated by cuts, kids no longer want to play orchestral instruments in the same numbers and we have to look to football in the way we interact with our local communities, then isn’t it about time we stopped having stupid conversations about clapping and concert clothes and got upset about the important stuff? I’m bored of it and I’m sure some of you must be. We can’t welcome people in if we can’t agree on our own rules. So come as you are. Wear what you will. Don’t worry about breaking some unwritten rule because the chances are the person next to you won’t know what they are either - I certainly don’t. Maybe bring a cough sweet though...just in case.
This is my personal blog. All views are my own and are not endorsed by any of the organisations I work for.