Last night, I kept casting my gaze down and around from my second-tier seat in Avery Fisher Hall at the rest of the audience. Looked just like the crowd at a funeral, except not as well dressed. Mostly gray and balding heads. It was if they’d come to say goodbye to an old friend. Just a sprinkling of younger people.
If we want to get younger audiences into mainstream classical institutions, we need to look at, among other things, the disconnect between the rules and traditions of traditional concert halls and the realities of today’s 40-and-under culture. When it comes to non-flash photography using small cameras and smart phones, it’s the ushers (and the proprietary mindset of their employers and the classical establishment) vs. our new YouTube culture. The new culture, where we want to take video and photos and share them with each other, is winning, of course, but the ushers aren’t going down without a fight.
Tuesday (at Alice Tully Hall), Wednesday (at the New York State Theatre) and last night (Thursday, at Avery Fisher Hall), ushers charged with enforcing no-photography rules caused more of a disturbance than whatever the behavior was that they were trying to stop.
Eric to the world: this doesn’t help create attractive experiences for new participants.
There I was on Tuesday, enjoying the really extraordinary Juilliard Percussion Ensemble’s Alice Tully Hall performance, when, during the music, an usher walked right in front us on our side of Row S, so we had to pull in our feet to make room for him. At first I wondered who this
asshole guy was, and why an usher hadn’t stopped him. Then I saw he was in a tux and obviously part of the staff. An usher supervisor, maybe. Made his way to the empty seats in the middle of the row and made fussing gestures at someone a row or two back. Who was the malfeaser? What crime against the Alice Tully was being committed? Could it have been, horrors, a parent taking video of his or her child performing on stage?
Then Wednesday, in the midst of the informal rock-concert atmosphere at New York City Opera’s presentation of John Zorn’s Masada Marathon (a more delightfully incongruent contrast between performers and the formality of the space I’ve never seen), lights started flashing in my eyes. Ouch! I was in the first row of the first tier, in an aisle seat. I looked to my left, and there was an usher, next aisle over, waving a (very bright) flashlight at a woman, I finally saw, in the middle of the front row of the section to my left. Who was doing something with, I think, an iPhone. (At first, paranoid guy that I am, I’d been afraid I was doing something wrong–legs crossed, the tip of one foot was slightly touching the top of the wall there to keep us from falling into the orchestra seats.) The waving light came again. And again. The message was clear. Stop that! (You bad person!) It just felt hostile. Especially given the joyful, often chaotic explosion on the stage.
Finally the flashlight was turned off.
Ah, back to the music.
My relief came too soon. Almost immediately the flashlight-armed usher was right next to me, joined by another. They were pointing and whispering to each other, loud enough for me to hear speculation about seat numbers. Finally they gave up–I thought it might escalate to a security guard being called–and went back to their watchtower-like posts.
Through through most of this I could look to my right and see an official photographer taking photos. Talk about irony!
Last night (Thursday), at least at intermission and not during the performance, an usher scolded a New York Philharmonic patron who was, I think, taking a photo of the largely unoccupied stage. The camera or phone was put away, the usher left, the device soon came back out and the photo was taken. The ushers have been given a losing battle to fight.
My seatmate told me about hearing a concert at the Cleveland Orchestra’s home base, Severance Hall, which she thought was the most beautiful music venue she’d been to. But an usher stopped her from taking a photo. There are issues, I know. But if I was running the Cleveland Orchestra, which is not exactly drowning in excess funding, I wouldn’t want my friend complaining about not being able to take a photo of the orchestra’s hall. I’d want her showing it to me and everyone else, maybe organizing a weekend trip to Cleveland.
God forbid you even think about eating or drinking at your seat. During intermission at a Zankel Hall concert, a patron started to walk in from the lobby with a drink in his hand. “SIR! SIR!” yelled an usher from across the way. He looked at her and she pointed at the drink while shaking her head somewhat, what, dismissively? Angrily? Maybe “annoyedly assertive disdain” is the best way to put it.
OK, I know there are umpteem copyright issues. No recording! No video! No photography! And people texting and holding up cameras and smartphones can be distracting. But this is what younger people do, what they want, how they share with each other.
Big classical-music institutions aren’t helping themselves, or the cause, by continuing this fear-inducing, semi-hostile environment. We want to get new audiences in. They need to feel, and be, welcomed. We’ve got to find a way to embrace the new technology and user-driven social media, and let people do want people want to do.
(Now on Twitter @ericedberg)