I was performing Dvorak's eighth symphony with the Brockton Symphony Orchestra last May. In the midst of the first movement, at the grand structural downbeat and resolution to G major, I heard a lone pair of hands and a resounding shout of approval from the audience for a few short seconds before the individual swallowed his cheer and stayed his hands. I caught myself thinking "This guy must not go to formal concerts very often." I can only imagine his sensation of confusion in the moment when he applauded and cheered only to find that a) the music was still going on and b) clapping between the movements of a symphony is frowned upon.
It's strange that performers of Western art music expect so much from their audiences. We expect them to be silent during the performance, to deactivate their phones, to wait for the entire piece of music to conclude prior to applauding, and, in certain cases, even to dress nicely for the event. It's as if we expect our audiences to earn the right to hear us perform, beyond paying the price of admission. Meanwhile, today's average rock concert has enough trouble preventing its attendees from using illegal drugs during the performance.
This past thursday night, I attended a concert given by Caracas Brass of the Simon Bolivar Symphony in Venezuela. Behind me sat an older gentleman, most likely in his seventies or eighties, who also must not go to formal concerts very often. His cell phone went off at one point, he and his wife talked to each other during several of the pieces, and he was among the most enthusiastic to clap between the movements of a piece. As I sat in front of him in silent protest, I realized that he and the other inter-movement clappers that accompanied him were exactly what the world of Western art music needs. As musicians, should we not be elated to know that many members of our audience are attending a concert of classical music for the first time? Should not our attitude toward these individuals be warm and welcoming, rather than staunch and disapproving?
The aural evidence I gathered from the evening suggested that the man sitting behind me fully enjoyed the music. Who are we to impose standards as to how he expresses his enjoyment? I've often wondered if the man who clapped in the middle of Dvorak's eighth is likely to attend many more orchestral concerts. Would he learn and adopt the standards that modern musicians set for their audiences, or would he, as I imagine many have, decide that the modern formal concert hall has too many rules, and that its patrons are too exclusive?
I believe that the inaccessibility of the concert hall is a real problem for classical music in today's world. The same people who would pay to go see The Lord of the Rings in a movie theater and listen to Howard Shore's orchestral score would not pay to go see Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, despite arguably significant similarities all around. I refuse to believe that the average American simply doesn't have the ear for classical music. I believe instead that classical musicians are simply too proud to reach out to their audiences and provide them with the product they want.