At a San Francisco Symphony concert a few weeks ago, I got to thinking about audiences, musicians, and composers. (Read the review of that concert here.)
Let's start with composers and audiences. This concert featured the SFS premiere of John Adams's Naive and Sentimental Music, a heroically-scaled, exciting, and deeply moving work. Adams lives in Berkeley, and so he was on hand for the concert. He spoke about himself and the piece, and the Symphony played musical examples.
This is a great way to set up the audience to listen carefully to the music, and it's especially useful and important when it's new music. Not that Adams is especially difficult, but every audience contains people who are resistant to new or 20th century music. At the SFS, music director Michael Tilson Thomas introduces music from the podium fairly often. He's articulate and charming and knows how to sell music to an audience.
But there was a missed opportunity at the Adams concert - a chance to get feedback from the audience. This could be done in so many different ways. There must be a room at Davies where audience members could meet with the composer, conductor, and some of the orchestra musicians during the intermission or after the concert. Speight Jenkins, general manager of the Seattle Opera, is available for questions and discussion after almost every one of their performances.
The programs might contain feedback forms on which the audience could ask questions - the composer, conductor, or an orchestra member could answer these at the end of the concert. I can just imagine some of the questions: "Principal Flutist, how did you learn that opening solo and how do you stay in tune with the first oboe?" "Mr. Conductor, how the heck do you keep track of where you are?" "Mr. Composer, do you use the music-editing program Sibelius?" "Mr. Composer, why does your music hurt my ears?" "Ms. Violinist, how come you scowled all the way through? Don't you like that piece?" (I'll come back to that last question in a bit.)
Greg Sandow and the Pittsburgh Symphony have started what sounds like a great program to get the audience to talk back. Believe it or not, I was thinking about this subject before Greg's post appeared. So perhaps this subject is in the air just now.
Then again, there was the audience itself. Some of its members didn't know how to behave. I heard quiet chatter here and there right up to - and even past - the first downbeat of the first two movements of the Adams. This happens all the time at the opera, where I once heard talk well into the overture to Eugene Onegin. It's as if people think they're in their livings rooms watching a DVD. They can't distinguish between a formal and informal occasion any more. I've come to believe that the "Please turn off all cell phones, pagers, and watch alarms" announcements at the symphony and opera need to include "and please do not talk once the lights go down and the conductor comes out."
I spent some time looking around at the audience during the Adams. It's a dynamic piece; there are places in it where I can imagine getting up and dancing, if only there were a dance floor handy. I respond physically to that kind of music and sometimes move in time to it. I smile a lot when I'm enjoying a piece. I know the look on my face changes constantly in relation to what I'm hearing.
Everyone I could see in the audience looked serious, very, very serious. I'm not sure if they were simply reacting very differently to the Adams than I was, or if they were concentrating hard to take in a new work or if they just think they should not be displaying pleasure or other emotions openly while listening to "serious" music. I don't understand this - music is a sensual pleasure, from the sheer beauty of much of what we hear to the emotions it triggers in us to how we react to the sheer physical force of a giant orchestra.
But maybe they were taking their cues from the orchestra. From where I sat, it looked as though conductor Alan Gilbert was having a great time. He danced all over the podium and swayed constantly with the beat. Of the orchestra members I could see, only principal violinist Geraldine Walther and associate principal cellist Peter Wyrick, who played first chair in the Adams, looked as if they were having fun. Everyone else looked just like the audience - very serious and very, very focussed on counting and playing a complex new piece. (Walther and Wyrick always look as if they're enjoying themselves!)
I have to wonder if this contributes to the hard sell of classical music to a new audience. Rock, jazz, and pop musicians get to move; they get to dance. No one thinks it's odd if a jazz pianist sings along with her playing, but Glenn Gould's moaning or Toscanini's singing along on his opera recordings are considered by many to be bad form or even mildly embarrassing. But I can't imagine that anyone goes into playing music of any kind for a living unless they love the music and act of playing. I wish more of them would show that love publicly. After all, there I am having a good time at the symphony. Musicians get to have fun too.