Gavin Borchert argues in a Seattle Weekly review that non-traditional concerts, with applause encouraged between movements, are not the innovation that will save classical music. He contrasts the experiences of two Chiara Quartet (website motto: “chamber music in any chamber!”) concerts, two nights in a row: one in the traditional Meany Hall, one at a bar. Despite encouragement to do otherwise, the small audience at the Tractor Bar was quiet and reluctant to clap between movements, even when reminded by the quartet’s cellist that they had permission to do so.
So what have we learned? Well, maybe people behave the way they do at concerts not because it’s an artificial standard imposed by ironclad tradition but because the music sounds better that way. Maybe listeners feel classical music most deeply when they pay quiet attention to it. Maybe sometimes not clapping is OK, and we don’t need to rush in and obliterate every silence. Maybe true innovations in concert presentation—new ways of getting music and music lovers together—will be concerned not with questions of formal vs. informal, loose vs. uptight, but with what setting best allows music to work its magic.
He makes some good points, and the article is well worth reading. Of course, generalizing from one or two experiments doesn’t provide much predictive value. Despite having experimented with a concert in which the audience was encouraged to clap and dance whenever they wanted, I like quiet while I listen. Applause between movements? Well, with some works, such as Romantic symphonies, we know it was the standard practice of the time and expected and often encouraged by composers. So it feels extremely artificial to me to keep people from clapping after the rousing, bombastic finish of a first movement. But that doesn’t mean I would prefer noise during the music.
One thing Borchert doesn’t address is how many of the 40-50 people he says attended the Tractor Bar concert were people who don’t otherwise attend classical concerts (which he couldn’t know unless there was a poll taken). If most of the audience were Chiara quartet or general classical-music fans who are already part of the traditional audience concert culture, it’s no surprise they behaved as we’ve been trained, regardless of the alternative environment.
The dilemma is this, it seems to me. The current audience of regular concert goers likes things the way they are. The question is what do we do to bring in new audiences who really are put off by the formality of the concert environment. Borchert is right that informality in and of itself is not the answer, and that quiet listening is a good way to experience classical music. “[T]he fidgetless focus of the thoroughly absorbed,” he accurately calls it.
My intuition, and that’s all it is at this point, since I’m unaware of any data on the subject, is that there nevertheless a very powerful long-term role that informal, interactive concerts can play in building a wider, or additional, audience. That doesn’t mean we need to do away with traditional, formal, concerts with silent (especially during the music!) audiences. But neither should we dismiss alternate-format experimentation. “Chamber music in any chamber.” I like that.