Thursday, May 31, 2012

'Dear Leader' music?

It has become commonplace to protest the formality of classical music performance, especially refraining from applause until the end of multi-movement works – which, as The New Yorker’s Alex Ross and others have pointed out, is a 20th-century practice, unknown to musicians and audiences of earlier times.

Few, though, have protested as outspokenly as Richard Dare, CEO and managing director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, who writes for The Huffington Post that highbrow etiquette prevents him from “authentically enjoy[ing] the performance going on inside that hall as I might spontaneously appreciate any other cultural pursuit like a movie or a dance or a hip-hop concert – if I could clap when clapping felt needed, laugh when it was funny, shout when I couldn’t contain the joy building up inside myself.”

Instead, Dare writes, classical performance is a realm resembling “a musical North Korea. . . . Rise to your feet and applaud. The Dear Leader is coming on stage to conduct. He will guide us, ever so worshipfully through the necrocracy of composers we are obliged to forever adore” . . .

Dare and others who’ve written similar pieces neglect to note that etiquette afflicts other kinds of musical performance. Go to just about any jazz concert and you’ll hear applause after every solo, whether or not it warrants applause. At most pop-music arena shows, audience response is as carefully stage-managed as at a Soviet May Day parade. Spontaneous response to performers is rare in any genre of music – or any other performing art, for that matter.

“Classical music belongs to the audience – to its listeners, not the critics, to the citizens, not the snobs,” Dare writes. Yes, but: Classical music differs from other kinds because the focus of the performance is not the artist, however stellar, or the audience, however enthusiastic. It’s about the music.

What enhances the enjoyment and appreciation of the music is good, what distracts from it is not. Clapping between movements does not break the spell; clapping whenever you feel like it, shouting when you can’t “contain the joy,” disrupts the musical experience of others.

“Stuffy” is one way to describe classical concert etiquette. “Considerate” is another.