Monday, August 1, 2005

MH - The Cultural Abyss, Again

I was having lunch with my friend Badda-Blogger last week, and it was clear from our conversation that people have forgotten how to behave in public. Badda-Blogger's complaint was people conversing behind him during the Mark Knoplfler concert; I'll let him pass on his tale of woe if he chooses. My experience was at the Minnesota Orchestra concert on Friday night, and while the behavior was different, it proves the same point.

The concert itself (to which I alluded on Friday) was terrific. The Orchestra was in fine form; the performance, which included readings and music from Romeo and Juliet, was sublime. It was the behavior of the patrons which provided the most consternation, but maybe that's too strong a word. I'll let you be the judge.

First off, this is the summer season for the Orchestra, and so the audience is composed less of the hard-core classical music fan, and more of the casual listener. This was immediately apparant when the bulk of the audience insisted 0n applauding between movements of the Mendelssohn Midsummer Night's Dream. Now, this is a subject of some debate among classical music observers. Over at the Greg Sandow's classical music blog, Sandow has been insistant that this is not a bad thing. Music was meant to be appreciated, and why stifle the audience from showing their appreciation? Besides, it was common for applause to come between movements back in the era when most of this music was composed.

That may well be true, but nevertheless the convention has developed that you don't applaud between movements; you reserve the applause for the end of the composition. My own belief is that applause interrupts the momentum and continuity the composer was trying to develop within the composition. Furthermore, it speaks to me of a certain lowering of standards. Sandow says we need to reach out and attract new listeners to classical music, and one of the ways to do it is to make it less stuffy and confining - for example, more casual dress and behavior.

Here I have to disagree. Bishop Sheen once said that when you see something you love, you don't try to drag that object down to your level; you strive upward, to be worthy of that which you love. It should be the same with classical music: don't dumb down the experience. So what if people have to dress up a little and have to observe certain conventions? What's wrong with expecting, or at least asking, people to strive for a behavior slightly elevated from what they might be used to? Trust me, this is not the way you're going to bring more young people into the classical experience. Much as it pains me to agree with those who constantly talk of spending more money for public schools, they probably are right when it comes to teaching music appreciation. One of the purposes of education is to help develop a well-rounded individual, and it's no different whether you're talking about literature or music. Here is where you're going to introduce the love of classical music (if it's taught right). There are other ways as well, but I just don't think it hurts to expect people to occasionally raise their behavior in public.

Which brings me to the woman down two or three rows from us who spent the entire concert knitting. I mean it; not only knitting, but cutting thread and holding up her project to see how it looked. Now, I know people who insist they're better able to concentrate on what's going on when they're doing something else - doodling, things like that. Maybe they're right. But again this is more about how you behave in public, and I think I'm on fairly stable ground here when I suggest that it's not polite to knit while you're attending a symphony concert. It's rude to the performers, who command a certain amount of respect when they're up there doing their best for you (and this woman was no more than five or six rows from the stage; it would have been impossible for the musicians nearest the stage to not notice her), and it's distracting to those sitting around you. If you want to use music as a soothing background for whatever it is that you're doing, that's fine - stay at home and turn on the radio.

Good music, classical or otherwise, is something of an interactive affair in that it requires a certain amount of participation on your part to fully appreciate it. In some situations that might be singing along or dancing. In the symphony concert hall, it's sitting there and concentrating on what's going on up on the stage. I recall Robert Reilly writing once in Crisis Magaizine of a friend who had purchased some classical CDs based on Reilly's recommendation, but was now calling to complain. Seems he'd brought them to work to listen to them, but he'd become distracted by the beauty of the music and found himself unable to concentrate on his work.

It should be the same way in the concert hall. Whether you're sitting on the edge of your seat enraptured by the movements of conductor and musicians, or lying back with your eyes closed lost in a fantasy of images created by the music, you're somehow interacting with the performance. You can't do that if you're also trying to concentrate on some kind of task that involves manual dexterity. Now maybe these people were here because they'd been given free tickets or something (they were dressed in t-shirt and blue jeans, which is casual even for the summer season of concerts), and they weren't really classical music fans, but give me a break!

This kind of thing always amazes me, although it's ceased to surprise me. But to me it represents just another detail of how our culture has fallen, becoming more casual, more crude, less refined and sophisticated. We're only talking about a couple of hours out of a life; would it really hurt to try and strive for behavior a little higher than what you usually show? Who knows - you might even wind up liking it.

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