Sunday, January 28, 2007


Given our outdated but lingering presumptions about where "sophisticated" audiences gather for classical music, it’s still considered noteworthy when noisy concertgoers disrupt big-ticket events in major cultural centers.

Shocking revelation: There are rude people in big cities.

(I can claim some expertise on disruptive behavior, having been expelled from nursery school for disrupting nap time. The teacher warned my mother I could become a juvenile delinquent. Instead, I became a journalist.)

Virginia audiences, in my experience, are polite but bronchial. The politeness comes from years of pretending to listen attentively to sermons in church and to people repeating themselves. The most ill-mannered thing people do is fail to finish conversations before the performance begins. If you start a concert in Virginia with soft music, you should assume that it will accompany snatches of half-whispered gossip.

Our bronchiality can be blamed partly on smokers (default culprits du jour, and this is still tobacco country). Mostly, though, the blame lies with a verdant environment in which allergens thrive and immune systems are jolted by sudden changes in temperature. Consequently, throat-clearing, coughing and sneezing are normal components of public discourse in these parts.

(In my radio days, I engineered a program by a Virginia lady who would succumb to the vapors at the very thought of being inconsiderate or disruptive. She routinely cleared her throat while the microphone was on. To me, under headphones, it sounded like a schoolteacher’s lecture with intermittent volcanic eruptions. It sounded perfectly normal to her. Listeners didn’t complain.)

There’s more to concert noisemaking than environment and mores. Slow, minor-key music generates phlegm. C minor impels its expulsion. I don’t believe that’s just a local phenomenon.

Bronchiality aside, people here seem loth to break the spell of somber music. (Church conditioning, again.) After a performance of Britten’s "War Requiem" a few years ago, the silence went on for so long the conductor finally turned and announced, "That’s all, folks."

I don’t count applauding between movements as disuptive behavior. I’m less put off by the applause than by the people who complain about the applause. It happens everywhere, and always has, so . . . chill.

I don’t know whether we have proportionally more or fewer people who take an agonizingly long time to unwrap cellophane from candy or neglect to turn off their electronic devices. They should be frog-marched from the room, but that will never happen. We’re too polite.