Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ps and Qs of Classical Concert Etiquette

Imagine that you are the biggest name in violin performance. IN THE WORLD. Imagine that you have a concert scheduled for 7:30 pm, but at curtain time, hordes of people are still just barely arriving. As a courtesy to the venue, you agree to wait. You wait. You wait. Finally, at 7:50 pm, you zip onstage. Your collaborative pianist and his page-turner join you onstage, and after acknowledging the audience's applause, you are ready to begin.
But the audience is not ready! People are still chatting to each other. People are still coming in to the concert hall and stepping awkwardly across strangers to reach their seats. You wait, onstage, quietly. They keep coming in. You sit. You look. You shake your head a little and smile a funny smile. Finally, the hall is quiet and you draw your bow across the strings of your instrument....

Almost 20 years ago, Itzhak Perlman came to Interlochen Arts Camp and performed the Brahms Violin Concerto with the World Youth Symphony Orchestra, of which I was part. I was struck then with worshipful awe by the sweetness of his tone and the power in his playing, as well as his teasing personality.

Since then, the advent of the internet and social media have made it easy to get a Perlman fix whenever I needed it. My go-to piece is the Handel Halvorsen Passacaglia that he has repeatedly performed with Pinkus Zukerman over the years. Here's one I have probably watched 50 times. Here's another one with some pre-concert banter and better sound. (Perlman is the one you see first.)

Last Saturday, my husband and I went to hear him live, my first time again since the Brahms performance. I was soooo excited - can you tell?

Before the concert started, hubby had to check the score of the BYU game one last time. Go Cougars!

We were far from the stage and very high, but our view was clear. I chatted with the ladies in front of us during intermission and they were kind enough to share their opera glasses during the second half of the program.
The performance was masterful: playful Mozart, intense Beethoven, lyrical Saint-Saens. I love watching the seemingly effortless bow arm of Mr. Perlman. Unfortunately, it took me a long time to relax. I was mortified by the audience's lack of concert manners, as if I were somehow responsible. I was distracted by doors opening, people walking and talking, a ringing cell phone, a camera flash, and clapping between movements. Mr. Perlman handled it all like the wonderful man he is, simply waiting for people to be ready and occasionally making jokes from the stage. For example, around 8:15 pm, when people were still arriving, he paused and asked with a smile, "Did they tell you the concert started at 7:30?"

I realize that everyone may not be familiar with concert etiquette, so without further ado, I would like to share some tips for classical concert goers:
  • Arrive early enough to the venue to find parking, get to your seats, and still have time to peruse the program. It is best to be in your seats 10-15 minutes in advance of the starting time.
  • Please turn off your cell phone, and follow the rules about photography and recordings. These are typically announced prior to the beginning of the concert.
  • If you arrive late, it is extremely rude to enter the concert hall during the performance. Wait until you hear applause or the ushers open the doors. Some high end venues will have you wait not just until the end of a piece, but until intermission.
  • Clapping is appropriate at the end of an entire piece, but not between movements. If you don't know whether a piece is ending, please consult your program. For example, the program for our concert shows that the first piece has three movements. Another way to know that the piece has ended is to watch the performers. If the violinist throws his bow off the string with a flourish and is preparing to take a bow, clap away. If the performers have just turned a page and are waiting to continue, hold your applause.
  • When the program is over, it is polite (and smart) to stay until the applause dies down. Some people left during the applause and missed the encores, which were my favorite part of the evening. I could not believe that people were leaving! Neither could Mr. Perlman, evidently, for he called to them from the stage, "You're going to miss a beautiful piece!"
Mr. Perlman played 5 encores with jokes to preface each one. Despite my stress at the beginning of the concert, it was a great evening!

Do you attend classical concerts? Are any of these tips new to you?



Talyn said...

I remember at some of the concerts at BYU they had concert etiquette printed on the inside cover of the program. I thought it was funny until I realized how many people needed it.

Tanya S. said...

The lack of etiquette at concerts is one of my great pet peeves, though luckily I haven't been to one with as much misbehavior as you've described.

One time I went to the symphony, a lady behind me whispered to her companion, "Oh this is a lovely piece." Had that been it, I'd think nothing of it. EXCEPT THAT SHE REPEATED A SIMILAR PHRASE EVERY COUPLE OF MINUTES. And obviously she was loud enough that surrounding people could hear. I turned and glared at her more than once, but either she didn't care or she didn't notice.

At most symphony performances I've been to there is an announcement just before starting reminding people to turn off their cell phones. Far too often, cell phones go off anyway. Very distracting! (Luckily I am terrified of being one of those people so check to make sure my phone is off at least half a dozen times.)

Amy said...

Speaking of basketball and concerts, Caitlin had a concert last weekend during the big game. One of the cellists kept checking the score on his iphone and flashing it to the conductor, who would telegraph it to the rest of the orchestra WHILE CONDUCTING.

We take our kids to the theater a lot, and they're ALWAYS miffed that we make them dress up while adults show up in ratty jeans and tank tops. They have excellent concert manners, though, and I hope my sons' dates will appreciate it one day.

Kristi said...

The total lack of etiquette at many concerts I have attended makes me so sad. It destroys a lot of the experience. The ratty jeans and tank tops that Amy mentioned make me sad too. Maybe all performances need an usher like the one in Spiderman 2-- don't let people in who are late, make you straighten your tie, etc. Maybe I could volunteer to be a crack-down usher somewhere...

Erin said...

Thanks for all your comments! I feel so affirmed!

Kristi, I want to get involved in the usher training at this venue. It is my second concert there, and in the first, it was THE USHERS who were walking in and out during the performance. I almost wrote a letter to the place, and looking back, I think I should have.

Amy, that story about Caitlin's concert is both wonderful and horrifying. I guess as long as the audience couldn't tell, it doesn't matter, but I cannot imagine how someone would not have been able to discern what they were doing.

Tanya, I check my cell phone multiple times as well. Just to be safe.

Talyn, I think we still need concert etiquette printed in the programs.

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Handy Man, Crafty Woman said...

Sighhhhh...we went to a performance in a theater about a month ago; saw the same behavior you described. People are just RUDE!! they don't follow simple etiquette rules!!! I would have been embarrassed, too! (btw, I'm 38 and was taught manners, and teach our son manners too. lol) ;-) Oh, and the phone & texting thing DRIVES ME NUTS, too. PUT THEM DOWN for a while, enjoy the concert please. You really can't stop checking it for an hour or 2??
It's distracting to me.

Handy Man, Crafty Woman said...

PS, I don't think it's ever to late to write a letter to the venue about something like that...
(sorry, this type of behavior is a HUGE pet peeve of mine, and I've seen too much of it lately!)

Tiffiny said...

I took my six-year-old daughter to see "The Nutcracker" a few months ago, and I realized too late, I should have prepared her more for what she should be expecting. I tried to gently shush her questions during the performance, but that only served to put her in a sour mood until well after intermission. It was during intermission I had to explain the etiquette of watching a classical performance.

I learned my lesson, and when I took her and her brothers to a Jenny Oaks Baker Family concert/fireside a little while ago we had much better results.