Accommodating the audience
Boy, has Krystian Zimerman done it this time! The distinguished Polish pianist, about whose behavior I have already written disapprovingly, has with one stunning act of contempt, blown the lid off, and left open for all the world to see, the most important, contentious and ferocious debate of the classicalsphere — the relationship between performer and audience.
To catch you up: While recently playing a solo recital in Essen, Germany, Zimerman spotted an audience member in the balcony recording the program on an iPhone. When the audience member (audient?) did not comply with a request to stop, Zimerman walked off stage, only returning later to complete the program and explain his behavior. The pianist, you see, is fond of interacting with his audiences, albeit not in ways a good publicist would recommend.
Yeah, I know — cell phones at concerts can be really annoying. But who decides how annoying? And if more and more audience members want to use them at classical concerts, couldn't their wishes be accommodated? Going beyond cell phones, how about when to applaud, and not to applaud? Or whether to eat or drink during the music? These are only some of the questions that get posed in the performer/audience debate, but even to bring them up is to invite an onslaught of opinion and invective. Check out the replies, for instance, to classical journalist Norman Lebrecht's unusually (for him) cool and calm editorial on his Slipped Disc blog. Let's see whether, after wading through the muck, I can describe the various positions of the debate.
Krystian Zimerman would represent one extreme, the one that says that audiences need to behave as the musicians' wish them to behave, and do absolutely nothing to disrupt the performers' or fellow audience members' attention. That's a perfectly understandable position, though I think with his boorish behavior, Zimerman takes the extreme to, well, extremes.
The other extreme might be best represented not in words, but in actions, such as the "anything goes" actions of the rock fans whose phone usage is widespread enough to compel such bands as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and, more politely, the Savages to take measures to curb it (hat tip for the link: Philip Price of Winterpills). The music may sound different, and the cell phones may be out in greater number, but once again, it's performer vs. audience.
Somewhere in the middle, we find Mr. Lebrecht, and also the following words of wisdom from a big-league classical performer, cellist Gregory Beaver of the Chiara String Quartet, upon reading the comments to Lebrecht's blog entry:
The vitriol in the comments on that article is startling to me. For me, that is the reason many people are turned off by what we artists are trying to do. Judgment is more important than perception for many: "is this the best artist? The best performance?" Of course, I am by necessity super-judgmental of quality, but if I don't set it aside and actually listen to what is happening, enjoy the fact that hundreds of people are here with me not just to replicate a perfect recording, but to experience a human undertaking that includes the audience as a vital part of the music-making, I doom myself to hating the whole thing. This same mindset has sterilized live performance because we all expect every performance to be superhuman like our heavily-edited recordings. So for me the argument over cell phones is just a symptom of the problem.
And Gregory and his splendid colleagues play some pretty quiet and serious works, like Beethoven string quartets. So, if they can welcome the audience, with all its quirks and unpredictability, into the musical equation, why can't Zimerman and others? It doesn't mean that wild and disruptive behavior need be tolerated, not that many potential classical audience members would want to go there. But jeez, can't we question our certainties and bend a little? Better yet, classical musicians might do well to take a lesson from YouTube sensation Valentina Lisitsa and, rather than rail against it, make new media technology work for you. If you can't beat 'em, which in the long run you can't, join 'em.
Each kind of musical presentation has developed norms over these and other issues of audience behavior, with classical being the most restrictive, far more so than rock, jazz, country, etc. But it wasn't always so. During Mozart's time, for instance, walking, talking, eating, even clapping during the music was perfectly OK. We may not want to go all the way back there. But the best way to know that things can be different in the future is to know that they were different in the past. In the end, classical concert behavior of the future will not be determined by the musicians, the presenters, the bloggers, or the angry shooshers, scolders and tut-tutters. It will be determined by the audience, voting with their ticket purchases and their cell phones. Is there an app for that?