Friday, 7 February 2014

Don't forget the audience

On Wednesday this week I attended one of Club Inégale's Rants evenings. These boil down to an evening's symposium chat in a bar about a number of issues affecting those of us working in the arts. Three speakers talked for 10 mins each about their pet issues before the Club's founder, Peter Wiegold, chairing the event, opened it up to the public for discussion.

The most interesting of these was the first. Ghislaine Kenyon (who works principally in Art) wanted to confront the issue of coughing, and in doing so open discussion about the way in which performers can contrive to neglect their audience.

Her opening remarks, which she admitted had no statistical backing but were the result of many years of regular concert-going, focused on her idea that the coughing that is heard in classical concerts is linked directly to the audience's sense of embarrassment with or estrangement from the performance at hand. She told the story about Andras Schiff getting a member of Wigmore Hall staff to tell his audience that the pianist would tolerate no coughing whatsoever - and, furthermore - that he would indicate when it was acceptable to applaud*.

Using this topic - and story - as a stepping stone for other issues, she noted being behind Sir Peter Maxwell-Davies at the premiere performance of his 10th symphony last week. The experience of sitting behind someone physically reacting to the music had caused her to consider how we think of our behaviour in a concert situation.

Ms Kenyon suggested that many people feel distanced from the very performance that they had come to see. She remarked that players that make an effort to communicate in ways beside their music making often have the audience's greater attention. As simple an act as speaking to the audience - perhaps introducing music, particularly new music - makes a great difference in her experience. Perhaps it simply represents the performer acknowledging a mutual presence in the space and the purpose of that attention.

Following her talk, many of the audience comments focused on feeling ill-at-ease in certain venues, often due to the perception of the different class of the majority of the crowd (Wigmore Hall was singled out in this respect), or a sense of not being at liberty to behave in reaction to the performance at hand. Importantly, Ms Kenyon pointed out that such a sense of the entitled majority doesn't arise at the BBC Proms because everyone knows that the best positions to see and the concert are also the cheapest 'seats' - the promming arena.

Now, I have also been to a fair number of concerts of all types. As an audience member I must admit that I rarely feel estranged from the performers. This may be because I am, more often than not, in a performing position myself. I think the point that those leading the performance might do well to involve the audience has tremendous value - as long as it doesn't career down that slip road of being patronising, of trying to speak for the music before that music can speak for itself.

As to the behaviour of the audience of which I am part. I am faintly aware of distractions in the hall. Many such distractions are individuals reacting to other 'distractions' that I haven't seen. My experience is that whether those distractions are due to the performance or not they still pull focus from the performance itself: it's easier to forgive someone tapping their hands to the music than someone tapping on their mobile phone.

I had an opportunity to examine these issues last night.

I attended an orchestral concert at the Royal Festival Hall: Britten's Four Sea Interludes, Thomas Adès' Violin Concerto, Concentric Circles and Vaughan-Williams' 6th Symphony. The concert, given by the Philharmonia under Nicholas Collon, was excellent. The showpiece interludes from Britten's opera Peter Grimes with maritime turbulence and shimmer. The demanding violin concerto had the orchestra operating with astonishing ensemble precision for so many players and the soloist, Pekka Kuusisto, made lithe work of the alternating spasms and singing line. His encore, which later we discovered to be the Bach D minor Partita, was played with the insouciance of a lazy cat allowing a ball of wool unspool from its grasp. The symphony had all of the aforementioned capability at its disposal to realise Vaughan-Williams' dark narrative of a country rocked by conflict.

I enjoyed the concert. There were a couple of the usual inventory of distractions that one encounters at any such event: latecomers arriving after the first piece; the rustling of free and purchased programmes; a poor soul who had a coughing fit in the final bar of the Symphony as it quietly came to its end.

I did note a couple of things that recalled the symposium I had attended only the day before.

Firstly, that the concert's start was heralded not by someone coming to say hello but by the disembodied announcement that mobiles phones should be silenced & that no photos ought to be taken (then the dimming of the house lights). This was all done warm-and-welcomingly but formally. Quite distinct was the soloist, Pekka Kuusisto, who dressed in clothing that was obviously special but not formal by any conventional code and then spoke to the audience prior to offering an encore. Indeed his (intimate) performance of the Bach started as he was still finishing his final sentence.

Secondly - and rather unfortunately - we were spoken to rather briskly by a member of the ushering staff following the concert, who pre-emptively told us to leave the auditorium. We were in the process of exchanging our thoughts on the performance. Most of the audience had left and staff were beginning to clean up. 'Would you leave please' is a reasonable request from a host to a guest who has clearly overstayed their welcome. But to two people quietly discussing the event? 5 minutes after its conclusion? And an early conclusion too - the performance ended at 9.15pm, 20-30 minutes before conventional orchestral concerts usually wind up.

To the issues raised in the symposium and the experience of the concert then, I might add this coda. As we left I thought to distract our dampened spirits by trying to find out what the Bach encore had been: there had been no announcement in the concert; nothing in the programme; and, as it turned out, nothing online. A Tweet in the direction of the orchestra elicited no response, though a member of staff replied in a personal capacity with the answer. This lack of empathy from institutions both hosting and performing is precisely the issue that had been raised the previous day. One hopes it might be fairly easily addressed.

*Though this is an extreme story, I might add that I attended a concert hosted by Club Inégales recently, in which I heard a composer mutter of the audience ('I do hope they'll shut up so they can hear').

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