Jim Lange Published

Mind Your Pleas and Cues


How should you act at a classical concert? Are there rules you should follow? Is everyone around you asleep or lost in reverential contemplation?

My colleague, Matthew Jackfert, send me this link– an article by Richard Dare, CEO and Managing Director, Brooklyn Philharmonic and Entrepreneur, about the perceived restrictions of a live classical music concert.

At first, I thought this post, considering the source, was playful jest. Perhaps a small poke at those who believe classical concerts are more akin to funerals than exciting live music, but I think the author is sincere:

"But this was classical music. And there are a great many "clap here, not there" cloak-and-dagger protocols to abide by. I found myself a bit preoccupied — as I believe are many classical concert goers — by the imposing restrictions of ritual behavior on offer: all the shushing and silence and stony faced non-expression of the audience around me, presumably enraptured, certainly deferential, possibly catatonic; a thousand dead looking eyes, flickering silently in the darkness, as if a star field were about to be swallowed by a black hole. I don't think classical music was intended to be listened to in this way. And I don't think it honors the art form for us to maintain such a cadaverous body of rules."

This fanciful depiction of a classical concert might be an observation by an unruly teenager, but for a 49-year-old globetrotter cum managing director of a symphony orchestra, this observation seems immature and awkward.  That aside, let’s address what’s being put forth.

What’s the sound of one idiot clapping?

Mr. Dare and maybe some concert goers seem a bit mystified at the appropriate time for clapping. Here’s a handy rule:  Applause is reserved for the end of the piece and not between movements. I think we’ve all been at concerts where a sudden smattering erupts after a vigorous allegro and is quickly extinguished. Nothing wrong with that, but to yell out when something excites you or to clap whenever you feel the urge is to disrespect the music, the space, audience and performers. Save your rhapsodic enthusiasm for the end of the piece. The performers will appreciate it more.

What is appropriate to one concert is not to another.

Mindfulness is something that carries us through many situations. There is a definite lack of mindfulness of concert goers in general and this clueless behavior can nearly ruin a performance. When at the Peter Gabriel concert last year, audience participation was encouraged by the artist, but I doubt anyone really treasured the loud, disruptive person who had, shall we say, “high spirits” during quieter moments of the show. At a classical concert, he might have been forced to leave. Probably he wouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Lifting the “rules” of a classical concert are not going to increase ticket sales or transform a financially strapped organization (many symphony orchestras have hit the rocks) into a shiny, popular money machine. Mr. Globe-trotter should know that.

The good old days weren’t all that good.

Dare writes: Joseph Horowitz in his wonderful new book, Moral Fire, describes audiences "screaming" and "standing on chairs" during classical concerts in the 1890s. The New York Times records an audience that "wept and shouted, strung banners across the orchestra pit over the heads of the audience and flapped unrestrainedly" when listening to their favorite opera singer at the Met in the 1920s.

In the same section, Dare tells us that Beethoven would have approved and expected shouts and cheers during his music and then tells us that Beethoven was a revolutionary; although his music was not received without harsh criticism. Then we learn that Beethoven today would have hated the reverential, pre-packaged greatness masquerading as exciting live concert programming.

My guess would be that the old boy might be shocked that his music was still being performed, let alone remembered.

Back then or here now, nothing’s really changed in my opinion. When composers come up with really new ideas, they are set upon by those who believe they are protecting the hallowed canon of classical works. That never lasts long either. If the music has some value, it will start a slow climb of 50 years or so until finally it becomes “accepted.” 

Classical audiences are glacial in accepting new music.

In 1973, composer Steve Reich caused a near riot when debuting “Four Organs” in New York. Philip Glass has been the object of scathing hatred by critics and audiences alike. Both composers are now accepted into the classical canon.

I am all in for living composers to get a piece performed by a symphony orchestra, but I don’t have to answer to board members or other monetary concerns. Maybe Mr. Dare can start a trend of performing nothing but music from the 20th century as well as contemporary composers. Will audiences go for it?

Making it more “fun” isn’t going to work either.

Dare is suggesting that the perceived awful way classical audiences listen, sitting silently, is one reason why classical music is seen as taking a downturn in ticket sales, attendance, etc.  He also states that orchestras play the same works over and over. 

Not being responsible for a season of concerts that results in making profit for a symphonic orchestra precludes for me making any suggestions in this area, but I would say that the audiences, mostly of a mature age, expect music that they have heard before. If they are buying the season passes, it’s a losing proposition to do otherwise.

Getting young people interested in classical music and concerts.

With music education and arts and culture practically nil in the school systems (at least that’s what I’ve been told), how are future generations going to discern between music of the formulaic variety and that which is ultimately worth the concert hall?

All I can say is that I try to do my part on public radio to introduce music which is more harmonically and rhythmically relevant to younger ears. Do I get blasted for it? Yes, on occasion. Will I stop? No, because it is serving a higher purpose than just to please by playing by the rules. 

In conclusion, I would be surprised if this Richard Dare is still managing director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic or any other musical organization because he’s going to realize (maybe) that making music isn’t the same as making money; although we all wish it was.