Concerts: ‘An unhappy mixing of people who want to loosen up a bit, and people who don’t’

Concerts: ‘An unhappy mixing of people who want to loosen up a bit, and people who don’t’


norman lebrecht

September 16, 2015

This spot-on definition of classical concerts comes from an anonymous blogger, and it’s a response to Gillian Moore’s piece about getting people to behave better in concerts she puts on at London’s South Bank.

It’s an accurate perception, almost brilliant. Here’s some more:

I sometimes feel like we’re missing something else, something bigger, that we could be experiencing if we stopped looking on our fellow concertgoers as an irritation, and started taking notice of them. What would it be like if we tried to enjoy being in a room with a lot of other people, experiencing the music as a group, rather than all sitting in our individual seats feeling aggrieved that the chap next to us is manspreading and the woman in front is so ridiculously tall and trying in vain to pretend that Iestyn Davies (below) is singing to us ALONE in our living room for our personal delight (however brilliant that sounds)?

Read the full post here.

iestyn davies


  • John Potter says:

    That’s what rock concerts are like – often with a euphoric sense of community.

  • V.Lind says:

    And so what? Rock concerts are amplified, shown on screens, etc. Totally different sort of experience.

    Going to classical concerts only requires two rules: sit down and shut up. The house usually announces before they start that phones should be shut off and picture-taking and recording are strictly forbidden. Obey those, and the rest is go with the flow.

    And enough of descending to the manners levels of today’s youth.

    • John Borstlap says:

      “Going to classical concerts only requires two rules: sit down and shut up.” Indeed.

      But exactly these two rules have become cultural obstacles in our modern, free and egalitarian society where centre stage is youth jumping up & down and screaming.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Well, mostly they keep a remarkable silence throughout. Sometimes they forget to applaud after the performance, being profoundly moved (or so I hope). And often they ask for an encore playing of the last bars.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Someone has looked too many times in the mirror, it seems.

  • Ks. Christopher Robson says:

    I think the blog article really IS spot-on. Thanks for posting, Norman 🙂

  • DLowe says:

    What a load of utter tosh. I don’t go to concerts or opera to be part of a group or have a ‘community feeling’. Why shouldn’t people be told to shut up? Why shouldn’t people stifle coughs? One might argue that I’m being self-absorbed. I think people that insist on their right to ‘be part of a community’ at concerts are self-absorbed. They don’t give two hoots that their behaviour affects other people. People go over the top with their condemnation at concerts sometimes, it’s true. That shouldn’t mean we should just throw all standards out of the window.

    • DLowe says:

      And I’m well under-30.

      • John Borstlap says:

        You are right.

        People who go to concerts to replace attention for the music by getting a community feeling, should find other means to find fulfilment. Indeed there is, at a good concert, an experience of being part of a harmonic whole, but this is the natural RESULT of a concert – not its purpose. Music ‘brings people together’, yes, but becaUse those people come for the music in the first place.

        A bad concert – say, with a dull programme including an OOMP – creates the feeling of alienation and emotional isolation, even more so than when the audience came into the hall.

        • John Borstlap says:


          OOMP = Obligatory Opening Modern Piece

          • James McCarty says:

            Thank you, DLOWE and John, for your very apt comments. To John’s OOMP, I would add the acronym CILWHV (Conductor in Love with his Voice). This type prattles on for 10-15 minutes at the start of the program, and sometimes after the interval, but almost always trying to “explain: the OOMP to the Philistines in the audience.

            Good Lord, man, just shut up and play.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    I’m not surprised that the anonymous blogger voiced such opinions, though I did wonder whether occasionally it wasn’t just tongue-in-cheek. Fundamentally, behaviour in public places comes down to this: you show consideration towards others and don’t assume you are the most important person on the planet. Unfortunately, the “me, me, me” attitude of the “with it” generations means there is little or no consideration for others: rarely do the “sweet young things” stand up for elderly people in overcrowded tube carriages or pay attention to the whole point of a “Quiet Coach”, which is surely not to have dozens of mobile phone conversations thrust at you. When society as a whole learns to respect every other human being and not constantly to exceed those boundaries which mark the end of one’s personal freedom and encroachment on anybody else’s, we will have a more civilised and tolerant world. At the moment, anything goes and that includes open canoodling, slurping from champagne flutes and noisy chomping of jaws on crisps at the Proms.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I agree. Even when dining at Maxim’s, my enjoyment of lobster soufflé is often disrupted by Russian whispering, belching and, sometimes, uncontrolled laughter. Only when reading the international newspapers at the Carlton’s, do I find my peace.

  • Anne says:

    “loosen up” – one of those trendy phrases which is supposed to describe something vaguely warm, youthful and positive but, in most cases, is simply used to justify sloppy, selfish behaviour. “Get a life” is another one.

    Would the blogger like his or her surgeon or airline pilot to “loosen up”, or would he/she accept that perhaps a degree of concentration is desirable once in a while?

  • SVM says:

    In principle, I would favour the ‘blogger’s idea of separate “Performances for the Under-Disciplined” (in fact, some such initiatives already exist), but will the “Under-Disciplined” admit that they are such? It is not a category that can be easily defined (and it is certainly not age-related — plenty of disruptive concert-goers are far older than me, whilst I am only 23 years old).

    As for the rest of his/her post, I think he/she has got it the wrong way round. It is for the sake of those of us who, to quote his/her words, “paid £50 for your seat and booked your train ticket and accommodation MONTHS ago and have been looking forward to this all year”, that etiquette is important. There is nothing more disappointing than having one of your highlights of the year ruined by a mobile telephone (cf. end of Lontano in this year’s BBC Proms) or a serial cougher (cf. Zymerman and the LSO performing Brahms’s First Pianoforte Concerto in July this year). For my part, I book many concerts in advance, and, since I live outside London, I have to spend quite a lot of time travelling. I do not appreciate having to endure people who are unable to be considerate of my desire to hear what I paid good money to hear in as undisturbed a manner as is humanly possible.

    The comparison to “Mozart’s era” is also specious: in those days, concert-halls were smaller and people did not usually travel long distances to hear concerts. The modern concert-hall is *not* a salon or a drawing-room: it is just untenable for everyone to take it upon themselves to move around, clap along to the music, cough whenever they liked, talk, fidget, &c. If you want to do those things, hire some musicians to perform in your living-room (but ensure that you discuss plans for recording/photography in advance, since this has a bearing on the fee the musicians charge), or just listen to a recording.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Very reasonalbe considerations. The classical music concert format is a product of the 19th century, when the bourgeoisie needed spaces, bigger than their upperclass salons, to organize performances. And in a big space with an audience, everybody enjoys the music better when in silence. In the 19th century audiences seem to have been quite noisy, considering classical music also as entertainment and a social meeting place. Stubborn complaints from musicians, serious listeners, composers and promotors eventually created the modern concert ritual which happen to be a very practical way of experiencing music as a mentally-active activity while sitting still and keep your mouth shut. I cannot think of a better way for a public performance.

      An extreme example of demanding silence, chasing away any notion of entertainment, combined with torture, is the Bayreuth Festival house where Wagner specifically designed hard, wooden seats on which listening to his hours-long operas combined elevated experience in total darkness with devastating bodily discomfort. But I think it was GB Shaw who said that turning the audience in darkness – which was a new thing at the time – also provided the chance of taking an unnoticed sleeping session now & then.

  • Fred Obelisk says:

    Fear not,
    Virtual Reality will soon be here, indistinguishable from meat-space, thanks to the limited and easily fooled human sensory input organs.
    Not only the performers, but fellow attendees will be selected from a menu.
    I expect the option ‘10,000 clones of myself, please’ will be particularly popular.
    ** shudder **

  • Peter says:

    I have had the privilege of attending concerts in Japan where people would rather die than disrupt the concert in any way at all. By far the best place to listen to classical music live. And some would also say Suntory Hall in Tokyo is the best acoustic too.
    You cannot replace live music with a CD, ever. But I don’t agree that makes it a group listening experience. If you need additional stimulus from your fellow concertgoers, besides the myriad different things happening on stage, then you really need your eyes and ears looking at.

  • Halldor says:

    Some pretty jaw-dropping responses on display here. I’d be worried that some of these commentators hated young people so much, were it not that their comments betray the fact that they’ve clearly never actually encountered any young people in a concert hall. Still, that’s the last time I try and reassure any first-timers that classical audiences are welcoming, open-minded, tolerant and inclusive.

    Fascinating, too, to see how differently people perceive the function of music in their lives. I’d always seen it as an act of communication between human beings; an affirmation of belonging and shared emotions. You’d hope it would make people kinder, wiser, more tolerant. My problem, no doubt, but I can’t grasp the mentality of someone who’s capable of listening to Schubert with any understanding at all, and then, seconds later, of verbally abusing a complete stranger for making a brief, harmless, human error. What do these people get from music apart from self-gratification? For them, is it some kind of expensive pleasure-drug that they want injected into their consciousness without interruption? (“I’ve paid £50 for this! How dare you?!”) Or a substitute for a less sophisticated form of self-gratification that’s better carried out in solitude?

    And some of this stuff is just priceless. “I don’t agree that makes it [concertgoing] a group listening experience”. Erm, you’re sitting in a room with 1500 other people. Well, you’re entitled to your opinion, of course.. I don’t agree that the earth is round, grass is green or 2+2=4. Vive la difference!

    • Anne says:

      Nobody “hates” anybody here, just some traits in some people. You are exaggerating to shore up your opinion. Same applies to your interpretation of “abuse”.

      “you’re sitting in a room with 1500 other people” – yes, facing the same direction with little real opportunity for interaction with those around you, and none with those further away. Sitting on a train is more sociable.

      “open-minded, tolerant” – well that cuts both ways.

    • John Borstlap says:

      There is ample reason to love the young. Also ample reason to hope they understand a sophisticated art form. Fortunately, most of the chimps go to football matches.

  • Stephen says:

    One of the most wonderful experiences in a concert hall is when, during a quiet passage, one feels that everyone is absolutely concentrated and transported by the music. It is at such moments that one feels in communion with the rest of the audience and not when someone is chattering or rustling.

  • jaypee says:

    Do you guys enjoy music at all?
    Yes: loosen up! And for god’s sake, stop thinking that you’re special: you’re not.

    This comment: “People who go to concerts to replace attention for the music by getting a community feeling, should find other means to find fulfilment ” is absolutely stunning and so dead-wrong that it could be used to show exactly what’s wrong with classical music today.

    Hell, these so-called connoisseurs sometimes make me want to switch to speed-metal and gangsta rap and through all my classical cd though the window…

    • Stephen says:

      If you enjoy music then paying attention to it, as opposed to letting it drift by in the background, is surely axiomatic? The same goes for theatre or in an art gallery.

      • Stephen says:

        And what is wrong with classical music today? Simply that it is being drowned out by pop music, all to often of low quality so that it requires a very high volume level plus flashing lights to hypnotise and manipulate its audience into thinking they are on a trip – a trip that is over once the din starts, to be replaced by tinnitus.

        • Stephen says:

          Sorry for “starts” read “stops”!

          • jaypee says:

            “Simply that it is being drowned out by pop music”

            I don’t agree. Music genres can coexist. I live in Vienna: I can see (and I do) operas, symphonies, string quartets, piano and lieder recitals, baroque music, contemporary music on a daily basis, as well as jazz, indie and mainstream rock. Obviously, in this rather small city, there’s an audience for all of those musical genres. And no genre drowns another.

            But I agree with “paying attention to music is surely axiomatic”. And I certainly don’t behave the same way at Parsifal at the Staatsoper and at a Rolling Stones concert (saw both of them last year… Love them both!).
            Yet, if I want a complete unhindered aesthetic experience, then I stay home and listen to my cd/lps. The fact that concerts still exist is a proof that there’s indeed a “community feeling” which contribute and even adds to the enjoyment despite what our gurus may think. I have witnessed several such moments when public and musicians are ‘grooving’ together: with Nikolaus Harnoncourt -several times-, Kurtag and his wife, Carlos Kleiber (I was at his 1994 Rosenkavalier), I also remember a magical Brahms piano quintet with the Hagen Qtet and Pollini, a sublime Cavatina with the Alban Berg Qtet… And I also had such moments with Juliette Gréco (she gave at the Staatsoper a couple of years ago), Nick Cave, Paul McCartney, the Stones… These moments make you forget the restless neighbour, the heat, the narrow shoes and everything else.

            I think the keithjarrett-isation of concerts is a sad phenomena.

            “it requires a very high volume level plus flashing lights to hypnotise and manipulate its audience”. You mean like in a Wagner opera ? ; )

            Oh, and btw, I meant “and THROW all my classical cd though the window…” in my original message.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Listening to gansta rap has a disruptive influence on grammar and spelling.

  • M_von_Kolinahr says:

    I do actually sympathise with the anonymous blogger for a number of reasons, but I think basically he’s already said it himself: “I know that classical music isn’t amplified and you need to shut up in order to hear it properly.” For the most part, I think that’s the point – if people can’t show at least a little restraint and self-control in such a setting, it can really be very distracting for those who are just trying to listen and concentrate – and to actually make an effort to really seriously listen to and concentrate on and mentally and consciously engage with music in this day and age, rather than just regarding it as some kind of comforting, familiar background noise or as a beat to dance along to, or something where anything requiring an attention span of more than three minutes might be destined for the “too-hard basket”, is surely hardly a bad thing. And to state the blatantly obvious, serious listening and mental engagement is something to which classical music typically lends itself especially well. Of course it doesn’t have to be a hard and fast rule in every case, it also depends on the programme. Last weekend, for example, Renée Fleming gave a very memorable gala concert here with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the first half in particular containing (… comparatively speaking) rather more demanding and lesser-known music such as Ravel’s “Scheherazade”, but she ended the concert with some lighter pieces and a couple of encores including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “I Could Have Danced All Night”, at which point it all turned into one big singalong. The whole concert had a wonderful festive, celebratory atmosphere, and so to a very real extent it was possible to have the best of both worlds, and overall people loved the evening.

    Otherwise, in theory, films at the cinema could potentially be the blogger’s kind of communal events as well, but perhaps it’s worth bearing in mind that people talking, or fidgeting, etc. really doesn’t go down too well there either, for the most part. The comparison with concerts from Mozart’s time also may not be the best example, and of course we know what Wagner’s response to the opera practice of his day was, amongst other things to create a new kind of auditorium with a darkened interior and an invisible orchestra so that together all would marvel at and become immersed in the musicodramatic experience he was trying to generate onstage, and be part of a “communal experience” that way… something he of all people was supremely able to pull off. But not just Wagner alone – not so long ago, I went to a matinee performance of the Royal New Zealand ballet’s production (with a live orchestra) of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty”, in which the median audience age seemed to be about eight years old – yet once the lights dimmed and the production started, they settled down and were all quiet as mice, transfixed by the performance in every way. In its own way, too, that was a magical experience to be part of (objectively, it was actually a very nice performance with no compromises made for “contemporary fashions”), and it was the music and stage action alone that did it.

    Things are often rather different for rock music, of course, and on the other hand I often like that as well, just as much – the volume is typically one of the emotionally liberating factors, and the communal experience can indeed be euphoric. It can all be like one gigantic, seething pagan festival, also with typical attributes of “audience participation”, etc., but because of the amplification it’s much easier to ignore what other people are doing around you, and you can simply listen as well if you wish, simply because it can be very difficult to hear anything else in any case. But that’s rock, and not everyone necessarily wants that experience, and what works for rock doesn’t necessarily work in other settings. Perhaps it’s nice that things aren’t all the same, though – maybe one answer is to try to experience a wider diversity of events, and obtain different satisfaction in different ways.

  • jaypee says:

    Funny anecdote from Teodor Adorno about his teacher, Alban Berg:

    “At the Vienna performance of Mahler’s eighth symphony under Anton Webern, the two of us were almost thrown out for rowdiness. Berg was so carried away with enthusiasm for the music and its interpretation that he began to talk loudly about both, as if the performance was for us alone.”

    Gee… what complete philistines this Adorno guy and this Berg dude were… Too bad they hadn’t meet people like some of you to teach them good manners…

  • PickledCabbage says:

    1. If you talk while the music is playing.
    2. If you munch your snacks loudly.
    3. If you rustle the pages of your program me book.
    4. If you noisily unwrap your candy.
    5. If your phone rings.

    A trapdoor beneath you will open up and you will slide down a chute into the garbage container behind the concert hall.

    • La Donna del Largo says:

      I have a better idea. Suppose I send a man with a dagger to murder you in your sleep, you crashing bore.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Does this site have restraining orders? Or links to classical music therapists? Someone has really difficult digesting problems here….

        • PickledCabbage says:

          John Borstlap, don’t be naughty, stop kidding around and give back La Donna his/her lithium.

        • Alexander Hall says:

          I frequently rail against The Guardian’s thought police who instantly remove any comment if it doesn’t adhere to political correctness or dares to criticise any of their beloved contributors. However, I do agree with you on this particular point. Lack of respect towards the views of others and foul-mouthed abusive comments are not a sign of a civilised contributor. I see no reason why such people should be given the space here to start throwing muck around.

      • norman lebrecht says:

        One of many reasons why this former commenter has been banned from Slipped Disc.

        • jaypee says:

          We may not approve the way La Donna expresses him/herself but you have to admit that the person he/she was answering to is particularly annoying. And arrogant.

  • William Safford says:

    There are different forms of etiquette for different venues and different contexts.

    My childhood church is a quiet, austere sort of place. Many good people from many good churches with boisterous and demonstrative modes of worship would create a disturbance if they tried to practice their worship styles therein. People from my childhood church would come across as bored, boring, and detached in those church services, whether or not that was how they actually felt.

    Is one style “right” and the other “wrong?” Only in context.

    And so it is with classical (and other concerts). My expectations at a classical concert are different from other concerts.

    I sometimes attend classical concerts that cater to people with special needs. I am glad that such people can attend such concerts, and I expect that the audience will be different from a different setting, and I do my best to be tolerant.

    When I attend a rock concert, the ethos is completely different. Often the level of amplification is so high that the person next to me could be screaming and I would hardly notice. (The virtue of this is a valid topic of discussion for another day.)

    And so forth.