Monday, September 14, 2009

Audiences - Past and Present

An observation I had from chapter two of "Highbrow Lowbrow" deals with the quality of audience that Lawrence Levine outlined as the common group of people generally at the classical performances. The level of musical knowledge of many seemed quite low - in one example cited by Levine, in a performance by the Metropolitan Opera in 1900, a selection of prominent acts from famous operas were performed, but most of the audience had no real knowledge of any of the operas, had no idea who the characters were supposed to be, and seemed to have gone to the concert in the first place due to the names of the famous soloists that were to be featured.

Often audiences were engaged in other activities while listening to the concerts. Theodore Thomas, who had an orchestra he traveled all over the country with, exposing people to popular classical music, often tolerated the almost constant chatting, drinking and overwhelming amount of choking smoke that filled the auditorium.

The audience had tremendous sway over what was played in the concerts as well. Henry Lee Higginson took charge of what is now the Boston Symphony and he did not cater to the audience's wishes and performed pieces such as Bruckner's Symphony #7 and Brahms' Third Symphony, both of which caused upheaval in the audience and many walked out before the concert was concluded. They would not tolerate new or unfamiliar pieces, and were not above walking out in the middle of a performance they weren't enjoying.

I would like to point out that although perhaps classical music is "unpopular" now, the audiences that still attend performances now are much more respectful. Most concert go-ers are generally aware of the basic layout of the music that is in store for the evening (one could argue this is due to the advancement in recording technology), these days talking or walking around during performances is strictly prohibited, as is smoking, and the audience has little say in what the concert program entails, yet they are willing to attend concerts, and sit through pieces they may not find particularly pleasing to the ear. I recently attended a concert with the premiere of the Elliot Carter's Horn Concerto and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. We all know that the Rite of Spring was not received well in its day, and caused riots and general upheaval, but for this horn concerto people behaved differently. I could tell people didn't really like it due to the somewhat inattentive gazes around me, but they didn't talk, or leave the auditorium - they waited patiently until the end, and they clapped politely for the orchestra and soloist, as any good audience should.

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