Thursday 26 September 2013

An audience. (With Nicola Benedetti.)

While hanging around dangerously near the Royal Albert Hall box office during the Proms, I spontaneously purchased tickets for Nicola Benedetti's recital, which took place last night.

The performance itself was charming throughout and in places spectacular. Nicola B's latest CD is part-classical, part film music (I've hesitated to buy it, to be honest), so the programme reflected that, too: we heard the 'Schindler's List' theme, and something from 'Ladies in Lavender' (no idea) but I felt this sort of thing was comprehensively knocked for six by a dazzling Saint-Saens rondo, for example. A generous performer, NB included some ensemble pieces which allowed some fellow musicians - some of whom, including her sister, she had played with for some years - to shine. So, we heard a lovely early Mahler quartet, and best of all, the entire second half was given over to Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio, written in memory of Nikolai Rubenstein. This work (Opus 50, for fans of, er, Opus numbers) was new to me, and I was totally hooked from about a minute in. Sombre, certainly, but always with a memorable hook or burst of jaw-dropping frenzied activity (as NB described it, talking through the piece beforehand, 'we're all scrubbing away!') around the corner, to catch you by surprise and keep you immersed.

Well, keep me immersed, at any rate. And Mrs Specs. I'm not sure I can speak for anyone else.

The Hall was packed. And yet I've never known an audience quite like it. It's as if they didn't really know why they were there. As regular readers of this blog (thank you, darlings, thank you) could attest, I've been to gigs of all types, shapes and sizes and I still wasn't quite prepared for the sheer randomness of this crowd.

Might need to make something clear at the outset - I am absolutely NOT an elitist, snobbish type who only wants cobwebbed experts at classical concerts. (I'm no expert myself, although I may possess a few cobwebs.) For example, people who get annoyed when folk don't know when pieces start or finish. I am NOT one of those. If someone accidentally claps between movements of a symphony or concerto, I am totally fine with that. You haven't ruined my night. In fact, good on you, applause-wielder, for coming along and getting into it. It'll be you and yours who turn up again and again, and keep love for the music going.

In fact, I am being ultra-inclusive, by not making excuses for people. I expect them to treat the music they've come to hear or investigate with respect and attention, whether it's their first concert or their thousandth. You won't catch me saying, 'Oh well, you've only come to three of these so far - of COURSE you'll be wanting to behave like an arse.'

Because that's what happened. Lack of politeness and consideration, on a kind of 'hive mind' scale. I did not expect to see or hear, for example:

  • A group of young women directly behind us who waited for each piece to START before swapping around in their seats, zipping and unzipping their bags, taking out drinks and clunking them against the seats in front, chatting. Maybe their local pub always has a world-class violin player on of an evening, hence their confusion.
  • A couple in front who were so loved up that the woman kept rubbing, disturbingly hard, her partner's bald head. It was like she was buffing up a billiard ball. In fact, I suspect he had a full head of hair when they met, now consigned into oblivion. The problem with such a smoochfest is the constant movement - snuggling together, then apart, then whispering to each other, then taking photos (after being asked not to) then FILMING! Thanks, my view is much better* now I can see it through your iPhone. (*No, it isn't.)
  • The bloke on my immediate right spent part of the concert trying to wrap his programme around his face. He was by himself, for some reason.
  • The woman to Mrs Specs's immediate left was using her programme to fan herself, but with so much literal 'gusto' that Mrs Specs was caught in the slipstream. The same woman also produced some eats for her son just as the lights were going down for the second half. Crisps. (To his credit, he lowered them onto the floor - RUSTLE, SCRUNCH, CRACKLE - for later.)
  • And if you're about to say - you were just unlucky, you obviously just had seats among a bunch of maniacs - well, you make a fair point. But I can still cite the incessant use of flash photography as well as constant movement between selections by audience members all over the Hall as signs of more remote irritations.
Also - the coughing. I know people always moan about this. What surprises me is that it got so bad during this concert that it became obvious: no-one with the slightest inclination to cough tried to stifle or tackle it. They coughed during the quietest moments. They coughed at the exact point between the music fading into silence and the applause starting. During the Mahler, I really felt like we were hearing a quintet with the audience as fifth member, on lungs. No-one attempted a gentle clearing of the throat. It was as if we were sitting in the middle of a raging TB epidemic. I've heard of 'mass consumption', but this is ridiculous, etc. Ho ho ho ho. *HACK*

Famed jazz egghead Keith Jarrett (and I LOVE him) has become notorious for railing at, er, 'ejaculating' audiences, accusing them of coughing through lack of attention span - that is, you're not transfixed enough so you don't try and suppress coughs, fidgeting etc. I still - just about - think this is a bit graceless and off-beam. First: if the audience really ARE bored (and they aren't), then arguably it's KJ's problem and responsibility. Second: it's a slightly awkward stance with KJ in particular, because he wails like a banshee when he plays. "Hey! You in the crowd! Shut your noise up!" *sits at piano* "Wurrrrrgh! Hnnnnnnng! Gnnnarrrgh!"

But I'm now starting to think that KJ has tapped into something that really could be true. Not that we might be too dull to engage with the music. More that some people now go to concerts with the point of view that the evening is in fact, really about them, and not the artist. Why should they behave differently out than they do at home? Why should they not do exactly what they want to, even if does affect others' experience?

Context is everything. My fellow gig-goers at, say, Camden Underworld do this sort of thing all the time (ok, perhaps not polishing the bald heads of their companions to a shiny glow, there's a mirrorball for that), but it's a standing venue, the music is always loud, etc etc. So you move about, and you chat. But extreme metal fans are often fantastically polite - the outlet for their pent-up energy is the noise itself. The rest of the time, enormous Vikings who are so hard they have tattoos on their piercings and essentially give the appearance they could snap me like a twig, in fact spend gigs buying each other drinks, taking quite a lot of care of each other, checking they're not in everyone else's way and basically behaving with twenty times the bonhomie and goodwill we witnessed at the Albert Hall.

And talking of the Albert Hall, I also gloomily realised that I had been spoilt by being part of so many Proms audiences - lauded by performers as among the most attentive, and silent, crowds worldwide. I hope Nicola B and pals were so 'in the moment' - and their performances would suggest so - they weren't affected by one of the least interested and aggressively selfish crowds of all time. Everyone stopped clapping as soon as possible, by the way, and headed off. Whatever encore they had prepared, we threw away.


  1. Yes, I can agree with loads of this.

    I could add a few of my own.

    The ladies of a certain age who choose the quietest bits of the slow movement to slowly, excruciatingly, unwrap the Werthers Originals.

    The bloke in full evening dress during Parsifal at Covent Garden who let his phone ring, ring and ring. I had to deploy my most dog-rough Glesga accent. I am not known for menace but it seemed to work.

    The running out of the exits before the conductor has turned around to take the applause at the finale.

    My personal favourite, taking something along something I have never seen at a classical concert. A baby. It didn’t really take to the first movement of the Eroica. Everyone’s a critic.

    On the other hand, I have got a bit more fatalistic about this over the years. Currently there seems to be an invasion of the fuckwits, long familiar at rock gigs, asserting that because they have handed over the sponds for the tickets they are entitled to behave how they like, and get seriously affronted if challenged. But before that I recall an invasion of a new crowd, I suspect via. Classic FM, creating a new audience for concerts but who thought it was the same as going to the music hall. Even in the arena at the Proms it is getting a bit more barge-ey, with single blokes in tweeds having no idea of the personal space of others. I am not a great one for believing in golden ages.

    So I try to zone out and concentrate all the harder. It would be back form to deck someone in the arena of the Royal Albert Hall. And I know I fidget myself.

  2. Different medium - but the issues much the same....