Lately, I've been thinking about audience reactions and behavior during concerts, in part motivated by our Music Director's conspicuous negative responses to distractions from the audience, which seems to have made an unfortunate jump to certain members of the orchestra who feel they have the green light to smirk or scowl in the direction of errant coughers. The ill-timed cough really seems to get our Maestro's ire up, so much so that we stopped and restarted Death and Transfiguration in response to a particularly loud episode of phlegmatic ejection during the first measure. This was by no means precedent setting. During the Solti era, after the collapse of the recording industry, when most of his concerts were converted to live recording sessions, I recall him stopping during a take (previously called a performance) of the Háry János Suite in response to an unfortunately timed cough. Astonishingly, near the very opening of (I believe) Debussy Images, the great Maestro stopped the performance, turned and admonished a paying customer to either be quiet, or get out!
Although somewhat ambivalent, I am almost embarrassed to admit siding with the coughers – to a degree. Expecting a couple thousand people to sit for two hours in absolute silence is probably unreasonable, and from my perspective, a performance isn't 'ruined' by noises indicating the presence of live human beings. Then again, I'm not paying top dollar to sit where I sit, and chances are, I will be playing the piece again anyway, so I can sympathize with the person in the audience who might get peeved hearing a cough instead of their favorite passage on the one night in months they've shelled out hard-earned money to attend a live concert. But my fear is that making the concert hall, already something of a mausoleum, resemble also the domain of the stern, frowning, shushing librarian, won't do much to change our image as an 'elitist' and unwelcoming institution.
Another interesting bit of audience behavior was the reaction to Lélio, where judging by the maestro's expression, both the New York sophisticates as well as the local rubes laughed at inappropriate moments. Quite possibly, modern audiences simply don't identify with the hyperbolic romanticism of Lélio, or worse, find it funny. The WTF? looks Muti threw the orchestra brought to mind a number of similar instances when our former music director, bewildered at an audience reaction to something, would turn to the orchestra and ask, why do they laugh? In many of those instances, I could understand the audience reaction, in that it didn't necessarily surprise me, although I'm not sure I could answer why do they laugh? succinctly, which makes me wonder if there is some sort of cultural difference at work. There are a wide variety of things that make people laugh, many of which have nothing to do with humor. Stress, or nerves, surprise, relief, are all things which can cause laughter. And what makes people in groups laugh is probably even more complex. Another thing to consider might be that in certain demographics, laughter (along with applause) is the only socially acceptable sound an audience member can make. In some instances where laughter seems a puzzling response, I think the audience is so uptight, so unsure of what kind of reaction is permissible, the laughter is triggered by a kind of release of tension when everyone realizes they have 'gotten' something, or an intense emotional moment has passed.
For reasons still unclear to me, I once found myself at a screening of the film The Joy Luck Club at a theater in a part of the city far from where I lived. Even during the coming attractions, it became clear I was in the midst of a boisterous and vocal audience, quite different from the crowd I normally found myself part of when going to the movies. As I remember, The Joy Luck Club is something of an emotional roller-coaster, and the people around me were not at all shy about expressing themselves out loud. The scene couldn't have been farther removed from the symphony, the theater, or even the places I usually went to see movies. My first reaction, annoyance that these noisy people were ruining the film, faded as it became clear the expressions from the audience were not not the sort of cynical observations blurted out by the pimply-faced teenager, immediately looking to his peers for affirmation, rather, they were spontaneous responses to what people were feeling, expressed in a way that actually enhanced the communal aspect of watching a film with a bunch of total strangers. By the end, I wondered what was wrong with me, that my reactions were so muted in comparison to the people around me.
That experience left me wondering about what is expected of an audience member at a so-called 'high culture' event – sitting in the dark, silent, motionless, trying one's best not to become a distraction, praying everyone else does the same – where many of the shared, or communal aspects of the experience have been pared away. In the spectrum of human behavior, if one were able to look at the sum total of how everyone on the planet listened to music, watched live theater, or films, I wonder if the oddballs would be the folks who, listening to some musician's emotional outpouring, watching images of people fornicating or dismembering each other, simply sit there with sticks up their rear-ends, shushing the person in the next row. Some arts organization somewhere (it might have been my own...) had the slogan “...be moved” which I thought should have come with the caveat, “...but don't move!”
Of course, the antics of the cellphone toting boor are execrable, the clueless cougher who makes not the slightest attempt at muffling his outburst is villainously rude, and the inter-movement clapper a cad not even worthy of our contempt. I am not advocating anarchy in the audience, and as I am not a regular audience member, I can't speak from that perspective. However, common courtesy to one's fellows ought to be enough to channel public behavior appropriately. And the courteous person on the receiving end of a discourtesy is supposed to courteously ignore it. Maybe if audiences were a bit less up tight, they would feel more free to express feelings spontaneously and the odd, why do they laugh? reactions would go away. As always, I am very curious to hear what audience members think.