Bass Blog

Michael Hovnanian formerly played bass with an orchestra located in a large midwestern city.

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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Why do they Laugh?

With Muti now safely through his latest residency and back home, or wherever he went, I can finally exhale, uncross my fingers, and put my voodoo doll and Virgen de Guadalupe back in the closet. The Marcello recording project has hit a slowdown due to scheduling difficulties at the venue. The next installments should begin again in a week or so.

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 “ 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.


sjid said...

"God! I am still alive!" Thus Lelio begins, like a punch line set up by the entire Symphonie fantastique. So now you're telling me, he wasn't trying to be funny?

In Lelio, Berlioz dressed up a common crush on Smithson with a pathetic aberration of Goethe's already pathetic Werther, presenting himself as a sensitive, benighted, unappreciated genius propped up only by his art and arrogance. He lured her with this caricature of a fashionable new-age man, which would surely have sent a normal worman packing in any other culture. This quaint cultural artifact greatly misrepresented Berlioz' character, as she would soon discover. His take on being culturally cool is hilarious unless you are Smithson or a sympathizer, or a repressed teen.

I would prefer to hear more chuckling from the audience. Listening poker-faced to Haydn is unnatural and surely discourages performers when their humor keeps falling flat. Not even Haydn expected it. His audiences were more often like those at Ravinia outside the shell. Milling about, chatting, eating, drinking. Audiences have even dictated composition practices. In the later 19th C every opera was expected to have a scene with a spectacle such as a ballet, a parade, and this was placed within the work so that the late-comers could wander in at their leisure without missing the best part. Then there was extreme Gebrauchsmusik, such as when Frederick the Great took along a quartet on his military campaigns. Before the advent of unions. Some conductors encourage applause between movements, David Robertson comes to mind. I can't think of a time when it diminished my appreciation of a performance. Sometimes is best not to hold it in. I attended a concert by the early music group Three Parts upon a Ground at Indiana University's Auer Hall, packed with music students who applauded and cheered the improvisations of each of the three violinists (Richie, Manze and Holloway!) as is customary at jazz concerts. At some point Nigel North (theorbo) declared, "It's great to be back in Bloomington." It was a moment in paradise, never to be forgotten. The domain of Marcello. In India it is common for the audience to clap out the additive rhythms of ragas along with the performance using the palm and top of the hand. In Africa everyone is on stage. Our contemporary concert hall etiquette is an exception from many perspectives, mostly positive.


sjid said...


Limitations on audience self-expression are the biggest factor turning off young people. Innovative programming won't dent that reality, and there is little room for compromise. Marketing department, don't despair, and don't waste your energy where you can't compete. The coin has two sides. Our cultural niche is a country of old people, to coin a phrase. Our ranks are endlessly replenished, not even death has diminished our grey haired horde. Many of us are late bloomers, who shouldn't be faulted for once swaying and singing along with our guitar-picking idols (which was the point). But no more. It's the demography, stupid. We become more vicarious with each passing hour. Let's cut our coughers some slack. Anyone who braves sheet ice on a walker in mid-winter for an hour and a half of music without satisfaction guarantees is entitled, yelping dog exhibitionists excluded.

There is a correlation between performance quality and audience distractions. Muti's April Shostakovich 5 is an ideal example. We sat in rapt attention, not a cell dared violate our absolute focus. Muti has earned my great respect with this and other Chicago performances. It is ironic that he is intolerant of typical audience behavior (I am assuming it was typical) given his health issues this year. I feel uneasy about this, that we may not measure up to his expectations. I hope that we in no way undermine the potential of your collaboration. A kingdom, a paradise for a snicker or a sneeze? We do care and do try. Ask the fidgety gentleman in the middle of the first floor, the one with puffed-out blue cheeks who's sitting on his hands.

You might also ask Boulez about those touted NYC audiences.

Stan Collins

Brad said...

I have at times applauded Muti for standing his ground and making it clear to the audience that they have a responsibility to respect the performers, the music, and their fellow audience members. Similarly to the stopping, glaring, and then restarting of the Death and Transfiguration you mentioned, I have seen him do the same thing for a performance of Bruckner 2 (2nd movement), and then refuse to allow applause until he gave permission at the end of the Brahms German Requiem. These sorts of things could eventually make for an adversarial relationship, but I hope they serve to be something of an educational tool for the few who interrupt concerts with either rudeness or ignorance. Sometimes a person will accidentally drop a program or truly struggle to contain a cough or sneeze due to illness, and this can happen to anyone. On the other hand, some people seem to think it's perfectly fine to loudly project a cough for all to hear, even during a pianissimo phrase that the orchestra undoubtedly spent a lot of time perfecting in rehearsal. The mood is so easily broken during those moments, and it really doesn't take long in most of the repertoire for a rather loud section to follow where someone could clear their throat without distracting the performers or nearby listeners. Even a great performance can leave behind some bad memories due to bad behavior.

I have such a feeling about the wonderful concert I heard on Thursday night with Haitink conducting. As impressive and moving as it was, I'm left with mixed feelings after having to listen to a girl cough loudly and constantly through almost the entire Mozart piano concerto, followed by a second half Brahms 4 that apparently is scored for screeching hearing aid as well. Based on the head turning and glaring I saw from others, I'm not the only one who was frustrated. I can't say this is the first time this has happened, either, and I doubt it will be the last.

I agree with you that people should be able to relax, express their feelings, and enjoy and experience concerts in a way that is natural for them. At the same time, every effort should be made to respect others. If someone is going to carelessly (or even worse intentionally) make noise during moments when silence is important, then they should expect to be told to be quiet or get out.

Michael Hovnanian said...


Thanks for your commentary. I should have been more helpful by pointing out the lines that evoked the (possibly) inappropriate laughter, which came at the very end:

Adieu, mes amis! je suis souffrant; laissez-moi seul!

(...Lélio s’arrête, comme frappé au cœur d’un coup douloureux, écoute, et dit:)


Encore, et pour toujours!...

Thanks to the internets for helping a 'D' student in french with this translation:

Farewell, my friends! I am suffering; Let me alone!

(...Lélio stops, as if struck in the heart by a painful blow, listening, he says:)


Again, and forever!...

A joke? Perhaps, but judging from his reactions to the laughter at this point, Muti didn't seem to think so.


I have to believe the un-muffled coughs are the product of carelessness rather than design. I haven't looked at a program book in years – perhaps a few basic reminders of etiquette, things one would expect need not be said (use a handkerchief, etc.), could go in a conspicuous place. It is a sad fact that people seem to have lost some of the understanding of how to behave in public places. Of course, the flip side to your argument is that people who expect the concert hall to resemble their padded listening room should stay home and put on a recording.

sjid said...

Here are some excerpts from Peter Drobin's May 29th report ( on the Philadelphia Orchestra's new strategic plan ( )

The musicians will branch out into light classics and film scores, exchange white tie and tails for something less "stuffy," and perform in an environment that is more theatrical and accompanied by extras such as digital program notes and after-concert events.

The shifting of repertoire to include light classics, Baroque, Broadway music, film scores, and "other pop genres."

In addition to content changes, the plan puts great emphasis on shaking up the concert experience with multimedia elements such as theatrical lighting, pre- and postconcert events in the lobby, work with designers to create new concert attire for the musicians, and concerts at venues such as the Navy Yard, "an airport hangar, or warehouse."

"Be bold. Do not let fear control the future, but - rather - remember the saying, 'Who dares wins.' "

"The orchestra needs leadership to integrate it with the community and to bring young people to the concerts. It is terribly sedate in its marketing and programming. It is also terribly exclusive and highbrow in its 'image.' . . . You have to make it easier to attend, less of a hassle . . . and you have to develop your relationships with us."

"Bring on the charisma. . . . Be creative, have fun - classical music is the soundtrack of life. Stop stifling it."

Michael Hovnanian said...

Sorry, but that sounds like the product of some corporate doublespeak, focus-group horror show. I wonder if any musicians were consulted. Say a prayer for the Philadelphia Orchestra.

2ndVienneseRocks said...

Over the years, I have seen two artists trying to deal with problems like coughing and hearing aids by simply addressing the audience directly. In one concert, Simon Rattle turned around after the first movement and asked, "If you are sitting next to the person with the hearing aid, can you help us out here?" Thomas Quasthoff once interrupted a song recital and said something like "Let's cough all together now and then not cough again until intermission." In both cases, it worked, which makes me think that you are right that loud coughing is mainly a result of carelessness and people are simply unaware that they are causing a disturbance. There were also no hard feelings in the audience after these interventions, so I think addressing the problem directly is much better than staring in the direction of the cougher... I saw Maazel once turning around several times to stare at a young woman in the front row who kept coughing until she finally left in mid-performance. Everybody felt uncomfortable, and I am sure the poor person will not attend another concert any time soon.

On the laughing, I agree that this is strange. But that problem is of course worse at the opera. It's amazing what opera goers seem to find funny. As for Lelio - well, as much as I like Muti, he deserves some laughs for insisting on performing this ridiculous piece...

dippity said...

In the same way that porn has ruined "real" sex, I think irritation at coughers and other unscripted noises comes from our being spoiled by engineered recordings and recorded media. I stopped going to classical music concerts for a while, maybe 3-4 years, and when I started going again, I remember being extra irritated by the coughers and not being able to "turn it up". After years of using earbuds and having absolute control over volume, being able to skip, go back, etc, there were a lot of things about the live concert experience that irked me. I've been going more these days and am over that hump.

From an audience member's perspective, I admire the conductors/performers whose focus is so solid that they can carry on with the performance regardless of the ill-timed cough or other distraction more than those who get all grumpypuss over it. If the disruption is *beyond*, then I think the house staff should get up off their arses and take care of it.