Sunday, February 13, 2005

Dear Alex and Greg,

You've both been writing over the last couple of months about how different audience expectations might make classical music concerts more welcoming and relaxed, and might attract new listeners. Stop discouraging people from applause between movements, make concerts more like entertainment and less like a museum, go back to how things were in the 19th century, etc., etc.

It's easy to see how this could work out very nicely at good performances. Expressions of enthusiasm for a work or performer: what's to dislike, even between movements? Greatness deserves recognition.

But here's a question for you: what's an audience member to do at a bad performance?

I saw one of those last night at the San Francisco Symphony.

Now, if you're advocating for a more vocal and naturally responsive audience, should I boo when I hear a performance that bad? Should I throw rotten - or at least ripe - tomatoes?

Or maybe that potential murder weapon, a durian?

Should I walk out in the middle of a movement? Or, like the first audience at Le sacre du printemps, start a riot?

Is it even safe to boo at the end of the first movement? (It was obvious early on that the Beethoven would be a trial.) I would have worried about being tossed out of Davies, and I very much wanted to hear the Webern and Hartmann on the second half of the program. What if we'd booed and been set upon by Ohlsson's fans? He got a standing ovation from about a third of the audience at the end of the piece, as Mike and I looked on in silent amazement. (What to do about an audience that can't tell they've just heard a bad performance is another question.)

Booing is controversial, I know. It's kicked around a couple of times a year on opera-l, with opinions ranging from "you should never boo because you'll hurt the feelings of sensitive, hard-working artists" to "you need to boo so that the conductor and performers know what you heard wasn't acceptable."

Alex mentions, in a long and informative posting on the subject of the audience, that Brahms knew his First Piano Concerto "was destined to fail at its 1859 premiere when the first two movements met with dead silence." The judgment of history has put it in the first rank, even though the concerto failed at its first performance.

So maybe I'm just supposed to sit on my hands - as I did - and glower. But if positive enthusiasm is allowed, I think there ought also to be some mechanism for negative enthusiasm.

What say you about this?

Very truly yours,


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