The Concert Hall

Cough if you feel nothing

Every year the world of classical music, like the labor movement, gives its devotees some fresh catastrophe to cry about. In this respect, the 2012–13 season delivered a bounty when the players of the Minnesota Orchestra came into direct conflict with its board. The Orchestra’s CEO demanded wage and benefit reductions from the players to fill a $2.9 million budget gap after raising more than $40 million for a hall renovation. A sixteen-month lockout ended in what some called “a truce,” which like most labor truces was actually a concession: wage reductions of 15 percent (rather than 34 percent), as well as a truncated season. This was the latest in a string of orchestra strikes, orchestra closings, and opera company failings during the past several years.

Where classical music is most visibly in crisis is the concert hall, and all the rituals that govern contemporary classical music and make it intolerable, even to people who love contemporary classical music, belong to the concert hall. The prohibitions, the dress code, the shared obligation to stare down misbehaving fellow concertgoers until they cut it out—all are ways of disciplining the experience of live musical performance. At home, in the car, on the streets with headphones, a listener can sing along, laugh, get annoyed and turn the volume down. In the concert hall, one must not clap in between movements; everyone knows that those pauses are for coughing. By coughing, listeners reassure each other: Don’t worry, we weren’t feeling or thinking anything about what we heard—we were only sitting here, trying not to cough.

The rules of concert hall etiquette are so widely understood and reviled that they have produced new rules, such as every classical critic’s obligation to spend one article per year denouncing concert hall etiquette. No one follows up on these denunciations and puts them into practice, but someone should. The stakes are high: classical music is a performance culture. This was true in the 19th century, when opera constituted an important social ritual for European aristocrats and bourgeois interlopers, and it was true in the 20th century, when John Cage’s 433 derived its radicalism from making people sit in a room with other people and listen to nothing but silence. Composers write for performance. Months, maybe years after that first performance, if the composer is lucky, someone will make a recording. For this reason, recordings lag far behind classical music as a whole, and the concert hall is where the culture happens or doesn’t.

What do we hear in the concert hall? Symphony orchestras, mostly, performing music written before the Great Depression. We’ve heard these symphonies forty-seven times, according to iTunes, where we have three recordings of Schubert’s Ninth, each distinctive and moving, plus we bought spendy headphones to make them sound really good—and yet how rich, how alive, how luminous it would sound in the concert hall, if only the coughing would die down! No symphony hall can open today without some science reporter providing wide-eyed accounts of its acoustic ingenuity, the hundreds of adjustable panels that “shape” an orchestra’s sound, the special wood that lends the brass a special glow. We fetishize this imaginary degree of acoustic sophistication so that we can continue to believe that, in an age when world-class conservatory training is a prerequisite for a classical musician’s full-time employment, each orchestra still has its “signature sound.” The Vienna Philharmonic recently came to Carnegie Hall for a program of Mozart and Bruckner, sandwiching something by a living Austrian, Johannes Staud. The orchestra’s selling point was that its “homogeneous musical style” hasn’t changed in the last 170 years.

The Vienna Philharmonic’s sound isn’t the only homogeneous thing about it. It wasn’t until 1997, on the eve of an American tour the National Organization for Women threatened to protest, that the orchestra admitted harpist Anna Lelkes as its first female permanent member, and even then the vote was not unanimous. No other musical world is so thoroughly dominated by white men, both in performance and in administration, and no other shows such open contempt for those who complain about these imbalances. Last December, Jane Glover became the third female conductor in the 134-year history of the Metropolitan Opera. The Met marked this historic occasion by allowing Glover to lead an abridged, children’s version of The Magic Flute.

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