A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

How to kill music performance stone dead


Just read Richard Dare’s great piece in the Huff Post, ‘The Awfulness of Classical Music Concerts’. Oh yes. Oh yes indeed.

Never have I seen it demonstrated so clearly as at the concert I went to on Monday night. The Sydney Opera House Concert Hall was packed out, which is always great to see. And I’ll wager that well over 90% paid for their tickets too, which means not only that the money is coming in to support the music, but that the audience value what they’re about to hear. Even more encouraging, this was a concert of ‘new’ music. OK, so it was being played by rockstars, and there was a drumkit, keyboards, lights and some funky numbers, but it was a two hour concert, full of through-composed, multilayered instrumentals with nary a three minute 120 bpm track to be heard.

What really made me stop and think, however, was the first half, which was given over to the Orava String Quartet playing works by each of the three main artists. They were introduced by Bryce Dessner (guitarist of ‘The National’), who told us all to give them our support because they’d been working hard and done a great job.

OK. You asked us to be nice. We will. We were. But you didn’t make it easy.

The quartet was set up in a little well of light at the front of the stage. There was lots of stuff behind them. In fact, they had to pick their way through it to get to their performance space. Awkward. They also had to fiddle around a bit with their pick-ups. Um. Waiting. And while they did so they didn’t give us any kind of update. “Sorry folks, the arts are so impoverished we have to set up our own microphones,” or even, “Sorry, I’m a klutz”. In fact, they hardly made eye contact with the audience, and it started to feel like they were pretending we weren’t there.

Then they played. Dessner had given us a heads up on what they were playing, but hadn’t mentioned that the first piece stopped and started. The technical term is ‘movements’, I gather. So when the first movement finished and we clapped, the musicians barely acknowledged the audience. As the work went on, with more of these odd breaks, it became more and more awkward. “If we ignore them, they’ll stop clapping and we can get on with the music…” The music itself was pretty good – a bit owlish, a bit cerebral but worth a listen. But the feeling of disorientation was quite alienating and the lack of audience connection made it really difficult.

The second two works were more boppy and thrashy and generally louder, and didn’t stop and start, except when the first violin stopped to fiddle with his strings. I think it’s called tuning. But we all liked the boppy thrashiness and clapped lots.

After the third piece they all stood up and bowed a bit and smiled and then disentangled their instruments and scampered off. Then it was time for a drink.

Now, of all people, I am totally complicit in the whole classical music recital scam. I don’t know how many concerts I’ve sat in, silently, no fidgeting, glaring at program rustlers and hummers. I’ve rolled my eyes and whispered “peasants!” to my erudite companion when someone claps between movements. But it’s wrong. It’s all got to stop, it’s stupid.

Isn’t performing about communication? Isn’t the audience a crucial part of the whole experience? If it is, then the tradition of performers who don’t communicate and don’t acknowledge the audience are in danger of being replaced by a damn good sound system. At least then you can be sure the notes will be right.

The second half of the concert was Planetarium, a sixty minute plus song cycle about our solar system, composed (if you like) by Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly and Sufjan Stevens in a collaborative project commissioned by all sorts of high culture peeps including the Sydney Opera House. It was fab. We all clapped a lot. But more to the point, when Muhly made glib comments about how they hadn’t quite sussed out the beginning of one piece, or when Stevens apologised for taking so long to get the right buttons on his digital box of tricks pushed, we all grinned and settled back contentedly. And then we listened no less intently for the interruption.

I think we’ve got mixed up on this classical stoush somewhere along the way. As Dare says, Mozart and Beethoven wouldn’t recognise the way we do concerts these days. Yes, there are times when you don’t want to break the spell between movements and, by all means, tell the audience to just hold their breath for that moment. They’ll be glad to help out. And yes, some music – especially sacred music – engenders a more reverential mode of listening than others. And some needs more brainpower than others. But it still has to be a performance, a collaboration between the audience and the stage.

Otherwise, what’s the point?


  1. Well argued, Harriette.
    If concert behavior is to change, the presenters must encourage it.
    I don’t think many are ready.
    I am happy to hear applause between movements as it shows that there are some new audience members there.

  2. Very interesting. I’m just back from seeing the Wednesday night performance… It did occur to me that the first violinist of the quartet was either a. poorly lit, b. anti-social, or c. not the first violinist. The crowd tonight were inappropriately enthusiastic about these string quartet compositions – but that just goes to highlight how inappropriately bored to tears the traditional classical concert goer appears to be.

    Meantime, most people around me clapped listlessly at best for most of the songs in Planetarium (which did tend to sound terribly similar, and aren’t we *over* the vocoder already? Like immediately after Cher used it?). Along the same lines, the recitation of things everyone already knows about the planets (Venus is the 2nd planet from the sun and is named after the goddess of love, for example) sounded like a hipster doing Year One news at school, and there were sideways glances amongst the audience when these poorly prepared verbal elements to the show bordered on embarrassing.

    [Just had to get that off my chest.]

    But yes to everything you say about the how of the performance impacting on the response of the audience. Where were the productions values for the ‘support’ act?!! And yay for many people at the Concert Hall…

    • Ha! Trust you, Elissa, to call them on schoolboy commentary. I agree, bit glib, but that’s why they are musicians, not stand-up comedians. I didn’t mind it too much.
      I’ m also not quite ready to give up on the vocoder. It’s not fair if Cher kills it for the rest of us!
      You’re right about Streets of London. The dynamic trio are indeed part of the grand tradition of thievery or flattery, depending on how you look at it. I drifted in and out of it – I loved Efterklang much more, as pure music — but I did think the execution – performances, production, scoring, mixing, lighting, the whole package was very impressive. Especially after some previous experiences at the Opera House which were just awful.
      As they say, rule no 1: be GOOD.

  3. Like! All very well put. But I must defend the poor Orava Quartet. They are a good group, but are still just kids. (Yes, i know one is already married, but kids just the same.) The problem for them is that they are being trained in an establishment where the guidance is restraint, constraint, controlled emotions. No one has said to them “show some spirit, abandonment, guts and glory”. Why? Because that’s not the way to win the London String Quartet Competition. Were they all wearing black? Perhaps not Sylwia?
    There are other culprits in the long standing rearguard action to constrain communication at, particularly, chamber music concerts. The Australia Ensemble clearly has a policy of “no talk”. Musica Viva tells their Huntington Estate Music Festival performers they are NOT to talk before their performance. A couple of years ago Sir Mark Elder conducted the AYO in a rousing symphonic performance at the Opera House. The enthusiastic audience of families and friends applauded loudly after the first movement. Elder did not ignore the audience. He turned with a glare of clear fury. The implication was inescapable: “You’re not here for a good time. Shut up and endure.” Orava”s Daniel Kowalik was in the firsts on this occasion. So what do you expect of him?Sir Mark Elder says the audience should be ignored. Except when they are enjoying themselves. (Anyway, first violinists – with the exception of Dene Olding at other than Oz Ensemble concerts – are usually so tense about the number of notes they have to play compared to their three colleagues, they say nothing, leaving communication, if any, to the others. (Pause for Julliard String Quartet joke: “Second violins have to play everything that the first has to, but in a much more difficult register”.)

    So, here is my proposal: Introduce new subjects into classical music schools, including public speaking, how to act (and I don’t mean “behave”), communication skills and, most importantly, dress sense. Long live Bond, Nigel Kennedy and their ilk. We desperately need more of them. (Allright. Maybe not Bond).

    • Thanks for defending the Oravas. I did rather make an example of them, but it was not intended to be negative. This whole ‘no talk’ policy is, to my mind, silly but, as you say, a young ensemble is continually getting mixed messages, and they’ve already got enough to do getting the notes out there without worrying about cracking jokes.
      Yes, they were in black. They also didn’t have a voice microphone, so even if they’d wanted to talk, they couldn’t. (It looked like the second violin was dying to make some comments at one point, but no chance.)
      And a big Yes to more work in music schools. But this non-music learnt-on-the-job graduate is a big fan of a generalist education (and that’s a whole new subject…)

    • Hello John, the issue at Huntington is that the concert timing usually needs to be predictable because of the catering; and it’s an occasion which often demands a lot of other spoken housekeeping notices, too, and people have paid to hear music. There’s no rule! Otherwise, as you’d know from other Musica Viva concerts, we’ve been encouraging performers to talk from the stage, with a microphone so everyone can hear. We’ve been trying hard to find this balance — an engaging experience where you can still hear all the notes. Some performers are more comfortable with it than others; I do think it’s sometimes a big ‘ask’ to expect people to be great verbal communicators as well as dazzling performers. We can’t all be Bernstein…

      • It’s also horses for courses – at Huntingdon am I right in thinking it is a pretty hardcore chamber music audience? People know ‘the rules’? Maybe their abiding by the rules means it’s hard for music newbies to participate, but I suspect that new audiences are not a core target for Huntingdon.

  4. Wonderfully said Harriette. The audience part of performance has been lost in the pursuit of the seriousness of playing music perfectly. Few in an audience would notice if a note has been missed, but many feel like the musicians are emotionally distant strangers – which doesn’t create a loyal tribe of routine ticket buyers. I was lucky to have someone who provided constant commentary to create that emotional bridge. When I’ve taken friends to Flinders Quartet concerts, they’ve commented that they felt the musicians held their hand through the concert and showed them how to enjoy it. We need more of that.

    • Thanks Kate. What is Flinders’ approach? Much talking from stage?

      • Yes, Flinders talk from the stage. It varies at each concert.

        The last concert focused on composers who had struggled with hearing loss so they talked about that – reading letters the composers had written and Calvin Bowman spoke.

        At previous concerts they have talked about similar parts in different movements, playing a sample so the audience can listen out for it, or what they really like about the piece.

        They don’t always talk about every piece but it connects you to them.

  5. Aww. I really liked the Orava String Quartet. I think they were amazing, especially given they were performing extremely complex pieces composed by extremely talented composers. I’d be way to nervous to try and master anything one of those guys had written (although to be fair I can’t play any instrument so I probably can’t actually make that call ;)) and I think they did a superb job. It was a little awkward at times but I’m sure they were given instructions on how to act and what to say or not to say, and were probably just following those instructions. And yeah, I think you mentioned they didn’t have microphones, which obviously hinders their audience participation. I loved their whole set, to be honest.

    • That’s great to hear. I thought they did a fantastic job too, and I hope they get to perform those works again. It was just so striking how they got tucked into a corner! I think it (ie the presentation, not the performance) could be better.

  6. KK? Katherine Kemp? You must be one and the same. One private. One official. Wonderful.
    Huntington is a fine festival and I love it. And I accept that there is no rule not to talk at Huntington. But Bernadette Harvey spilled the beans a couple of years ago when she admitted that, in spite of instructions to the contrary, she was going to say something and to hell with the consequences. Whatever the case, who knows if it is was a pay back, a couple of years later, when she came on stage to find the piano stool was nowhere to be seen. This I’ll leave to others to judge. (Only joking, although that did happen.) Certainly there are reasons to constrain verbose musos: the concerts are quite long; catering is an issue, although the food is cold so a few minutes would not create major problems. But the truth is, the format is “old style”. The audience is “of a certain age”. A younger attendee I know says people say to her: ” You must be a musician. You are too young”. The festival has to replace those who die from year to year. If there is a desire to replace these, disappearing, chamber music lovers with younger people there will be a need to change the format. Not much, but just enough. Don’t channel the Australia Ensemble. Try your own Coffee Concerts. The old curmudgeons love it when people like Dene Olding talk. He doesn’t quote the program notes. The younger participants will too.

    • But John, we do encourage them to talk, and not just at Coffee Concerts! Baritone Tom Meglioranza being a wonderful case in point at Huntington last year — a short and appropriate spoken introduction which added to the enjoyment of those hilarious American songs. There are newcomers every year at Huntington who are made more than welcome. It’s partly because of them that there have to be the housekeeping speeches. We’d LOVE more newbies of course, for all the reasons you say, and are trying various strategies to invite them, but word of mouth is our best friend…hint hint.
      Without wanting to hijack the Cunning Blog, what else should we be doing? All thoughts and suggestions for chamber music audience development are welcome!

      • Ah, yes. Thomas Meglioranza. He was indeed a fine example of the sort of communicative performer that I believe appeals to younger audiences. A man who will sing exquisite Schubert, followed, the next day by Roses of Picardy. And the Adelaide Chamber Singers: one day Tavener; Noel Coward the next. Who could complain? But the “hardcore chamber music audience” did, it seems, complain. See http://bit.ly/s0Ah8R . I’ll bet the average age of the whingers was about seventy. Note seems to have been taken in this year’s programming, although there is, amongst a fairly conservative few days, at least one segment of American cabaret songs, sung by the glorious Fiona Campbell. Presumably that was included to cock a snook at the grumblers from 2011.

        What to do to build audiences? Make performances fun. Create entertainments, special experiences. They don’t always have to exclude the serious or the sacred to achieve this, so Michael (above) should not be too concerned. Make it easy for families to attend events (creches, playgrounds). And listen to Kate Tribe. ClassikON is, as yet, more concept than driving force. But the issues ( who can I go with? I feel more comfortable in a group; how do I behave? What goes on?) are real. Breaking the festival into separate, bookable elements was a good step forward, offering lower cost entry to parts of the experience. ClassikON’s proposals for a “pre-festival” event this year sound exciting. Let’s hope the plans come to fruition. The Opera House “Insiders” program looks to be quite a success in the contemporary music scene. With the right work it will grow in the classical sector as well.

        My mind is working on how to get a proportion of the young Opera Bar crowd into the Opera House proper. When I work it out I let you all know!

  7. This sounds like a failure of programming to me. (Something that’s simply not thought about enough.) The introduction by Dessner simply sound patronising. Surely one ought to be able to hear if they are performing well; I don’t really care how hard they have worked if they sound glorious. If the don’t sound good then I’m unhappy, never mind if they spend their lives practising for the performance. (Unless we are trying for an amateur scene in which effort is to be rewarded.)
    I don’t really ever want clapping between movements, especially in Sydney, where audiences can’t sit still and concentrate for any length of time at all – people take much longer to settle after clapping.
    So, programming. What does it mean to have a string quartet in that concert? What point is being made by juxtaposing the medium that is (more than any other I would have thought) about musical communication rather than verbal communication, with something that takes advantage of rather more media? Muhly isn’t the first person I’d go to for an engagement with past (tonal) practice, so programming a quartet (his writing a quartet!) is quite a statement. And one I would expect that any audience ought to understand. And if they don’t then the programming has failed.
    Blaming the performers without considering the music and the way its programmed seems to me unfair. Would you want Beethoven surrounded by chat? Maybe, if the chat was nothing about music. Not really if it was trying to explain something to the audience. It is, after all, music that’s eloquent in its musical arguments. I really really really don’t want any chat around that if it’s not at least as artful as the music. Why else would I go to a concert – hardly for chat.
    The reviews of the London concert were certainly not positive about the quartets. And this is my problem with much of this kind of music. It’s being produced by people who ought to stick to the music for which their venues were designed (since design is important – right?) and not chase the kind of vibrancy that’s coming out of a whole host of different spaces. And the lack of this taking place seems to me to indicate a lack of confidence that I don’t really understand. Wigmore Hall, say, is a vibrant space, made such by the quiet audiences, their patience, the lack of clapping between movements, and the attention that is devoted to the stage. Barbican is a mixed bag, since its a mish-mash of arts spaces. (The concert space sounds fab as long as one is in the middle of the stalls, not much good elsewhere.) The Opera House doesn’t seem ever to know what it’s there for (other than having its picture taken…).

    • Michael, I thoroughly agree with your thoughts about the inclusion of the string quartet in the concert (and about the patronising tone of the introduction, for that matter). There was no sense of creating a coherent performance event for the audience over the course of the whole evening, but I would suggest that this was because the production thinking driving the event was ‘rock concert’ thinking, not ‘theatre’ thinking.

      In rock concert mode you have an audience who have paid to hear a big name performer or band do their thing which will largely consist of presenting and recreating work that is already known from recordings (or, these days, from YouTube). The bit of the concert at the start features some performer(s) of lesser profile, and concert-goers often don’t even bother to show up for this part of the event. The concert under review behaved exactly like this: the quartet was there anyway for the ‘real’ part of the concert, so they might as well get a chance to show off their chops. The (patronising) introduction to the Orava Quartet unquestionably belongs in this performance tradition, and in fact might not be seen *as* patronising within this framing.

      The woeful physical presentation of the quartet (stuff everywhere, dreadful lighting, etc.) as detailed in the blog post was made all the more evident by the effort that had been made to build a create ball hanging from the ceiling upon which somewhat intricate videos were projected during the ‘real’ part of the concert. Having said that, I had issues with the theatrical failure of the second half as well, so maybe this is a continuum not a discrepancy….

    • I think we need to acknowledge that there are many elements at play here. There’s the artists, their performance, the works themselves, the presentation, the programming and the venue. I’m not up for a detailed evaluation of either the performance or the works. Suffice to say, neither had the wow factor which one always hopes for, but only occasionally experiences, at live performances. The artists – well, I haven’t heard enough of Orava’s work to judge, but on paper they’re obviously a hard-working, talented bunch still honing their craft.
      I think the real problem was the dynamic between presentation, programming (ie not the pieces themselves, but the combination) and, to a certain extent, venue. The evening was two entirely different listening experiences, put side by side. The Muhly quartet in particular was an extended, think-y piece, and clapping between movements didn’t further its cause. I actually really enjoyed the Stevens bits – some nice moments of clarity. The Dessner was good and grungy and a bit overworked. But, as you ask, why were they there? To sneak in some ‘serious’ music while they had a captive audience? To show off the three musos creative chops? To give the young musicians a chance to shine? Or just as a support act? I think intentions were good but the balance – glitter and noise and drums and music and words and cosmic pinatas versus formal music constructs, dim lights and mute performers – was unfair to all. Not least the audience.
      I really don’t mind chat. In fact, talking about music is one of my favourite things, almost (but not quite) equal with listening to music and, best of all, playing music. But not always. Not in every situation. It all depends on the interplay of many different elements and that, as you say, needs thought.

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