Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Concert Etiquette

Good concert etiquette helps an audience have a wonderful musical experience and enables the musicians perform to the best of their ability.
Artists from all over the world have always considered Argentine audiences to be the most appreciative, warm, knowleadgeable, thankful and enthusiastic in their response to a remarkable performance.

Alas, another adjective may soon be added to the list. “Noisy” may be a gallant way to describe it.

Money has changed hands, patrons with little experience fill the halls, younger generations have invaded the auditoriums (that’s good if they are duly prepared) and a new set of jet-setters and upper executives seeking fame as patrons and pictures in glossy magazines have taken over. Unfortunately, they are yet unaware that there is a set of rules to be respected and have thus altered the religious atmosphere that used to prevail in olden times.

Welcome, newcomers. Here is a list of some of the obligations you may find useful in trying to blend with veterans.

Theatres were built in order for people to listen. Additions to the sounds emanating from the stage are not welcome.

Enemy Number One: The mobile phone. It should be left at home, set in vibration mode or entrusted to the ladies in the wardrobe section. A thorough investigation has determined that calls usually deal with the childrens’ homework or the status of the roastbeef in the oven. Never a “Transfuse immediately,” “Administer Alphabetazone in the carotide” or “Call the fire brigade urgently.”

What all the messages have in common is a disruption of all the neighbours’ attention and enjoyment of whatever they are hearing.

I remember a performance by the exceptional Yo-Yo Ma. He was playing Dvorak’s cello concerto. Just before the concluding cadenza the orchestra stops at an ominuous chord, and after a silence loaded with suspense and anticipation the soloist begins his meditation of all that has been going on. Then the orchestra renews its attack and the first movement ends.
Nightmares of cell phones ringing?

This was years ago, but I am sure Maestro Ma still wakes up screaming remembering the silly beeps (in a wrong key) that intruded in the wonderful silence and totally destroyed what is one of the great moments in music. 

There are counterexamples, though. In the middle of an opera a man from Galería (one of the higher and cheaper locations at the theatre) shouted “Please, a doctor!” The lady next to me reacted compassionately with a loud “Shhhh!” I grabbed my chance asking “What if it were your son?”

Silence reigned once more and the performance continued. I can only hope that the ailing spectator in Galería found a good doctor. And that the lady was duly punished by whoever is in charge of torture. 

Also at the Colón, when James King was declaring his passionate love for Sieglinde in Walküre, some (quite loud) backstage noises preparing the explosive arrival of spring so upset Jeannine Altmeyer that she lost it, left a kneeling Sigmund about to embrace a reluctant lover, and ran out of the stage screaming “Non si può cantare con questo rumore tremendo!”

After some minutes, which I suppose were spent making Altmeyer drink a heavy-duty sedative, the performance was eventually resumed  and ended in triumph.  Am sure we all celebrated that Siglinde was doomed to endure a painful pregnancy next to a ferocious dragon.

I later asked Maestro King what he thought of the fiasco and he answered “No comment.” But added “In the US we say ‘The show must go on’.” 

On another occasion, I was in Bayreuth watching an exceptional performance of Walküre. In my most adored part, when Brünnhilde tells Siglinde she is pregnant, the mother-to-be utters one of Wagner’s most magnificent phrases. Just then, a neighbour of mine’s mobile phone required his attention. The criminal stood up, searched vainly for the weapon, and gave up, thus ruining beyond recovery our involvement with the drama.

The next week, I asked my friends at the press office what they did about mobile phones. 

“Walküre July 22, row 22, seat 12?  He is forever banned from Bayreuth.” A lesson to be learned.

Enemy Number Two: Coughing. Why here? Would you cough as well and as loud if you were being proposed to?

Are you medicated? Is it possible that a huge delegation from a lung hospital coincides at the same theatre? Or that an army of aliens are communicating in their weird language? Have you noticed that an artist never coughs or sneezes (or answers his mobile) while performing?

I shall not elaborate on this subject, because an understandably irate Keith Jarrett has spoken for us all, but still… I have seen great pianists walk away, and all for the same reason.

It is seldom a question of health. It is more often a matter of indifference and bad manners. We can do much better and regain our position as wonderful audience. And yet… there is more we can do to alienate the artist.

How about shouting “Salud” or “Jesus” or even “Gesundheit” every time someone coughs? At least it might prove that we may be noisy but well-mannered.

And... What about whispering, applauding at the wrong time, sporting alergy provoking perfumes, opening and closing hand-bags with resonant clicks, arriving late, humming along with the tenor, etc?

Surely a good opportunity for a second Concert Etiquette?

This article by Jaime Botana originally ran in the Buenos Aires Herald, May 2011