On Audiences

Each venue has its own audience, with its own distinct characteristics. London’s Wigmore Hall boasts an audience which is famously high-brow (or at least would like to be regarded as high-brow!) and largely very elderly. Members of the Wigmore audience are expected to sit in reverential silence, to know when to clap, and to generally behave impeccably. I have twice been asked to remove my watch at the Wigmore because "the tick is too loud". Sometimes if a member of the audience coughs too much, or fidgets, or rustles a programme, they will be met with fierce looks and angry, hissed "shusshings". There are often “musical celebrities” in the audience, depending on who is performing: without wishing to name drop (oh all right then, I will), I have twice stood next to Alfred Brendel in the bar at the Wigmore (his protégé Till Fellner was performing on one occasion, on another it was Imogen Cooper, who also studied with Brendel).

Audiences at London’s Southbank Centre are generally younger, more trendy, more relaxed, while the Proms audience is different again - a real mixture of music afficionados, groupies, students, curious tourists, the faithful who go year after year, and people who are just beginning to explore the great annual music festival. The enthusiasm of the Proms audience is really infectious and undoubtedly contributes to the enjoyment of Prom concerts.

Sometimes the musicians themselves can affect the way the audience responds and behaves during a concert. At Maria Joao Pires's wonderful Schubert series at the Wigmore a few years ago, the musicians (the Brodsky Quartet and singer Rufus Müller) remained on the stage while Pires played her solo pieces (a selection of Schubert's Impromptus) and the audience was asked not to applaud until the end of the first half. This created a wonderful sense of an intimate, shared event, and we might have been in Schubert's salon, enjoying an evening of music making amongst friends, for friends.

But if we, the audience, are too much in awe of the soloist, we can put up invisible barriers which can affect the atmosphere in the concert hall. This was very apparent when I heard Daniel Barenboim perform part of his Schubert Piano Sonatas series at the Royal Festival Hall in May. The deep sense of reverence was palpable even in the public areas and bars of the hall.

Conversely, a performer can break down the sense of “us and them” between soloist and audience by introducing the music they are about to perform, highlighting interesting aspects or motifs to listen out for (this is particularly helpful when presenting modern, contemporary or lesser-known music), or explaining why the music is special to them. Personal anecdotes and recollections help connect the audience to the music and the performer. This more informal approach also makes it easier for audience members to speak to the performer after the concert. And people should not be shy about talking to performers: most are pleased to receive comments and praise for their performance and enjoy the interaction with their audiences.

In a recent article for his blog, British pianist Stephen Hough praises the older generation of audience members. Too often people have grumbled to me about the collective great age of most audiences for classical music, citing this as a reason not to go to concerts. But I agree with Mr Hough, because these people are the mainstay of classical music audiences, and in addition to bringing the much-needed “bums on seats”, they are loyal supporters of concert halls, orchestras and music societies, often giving generous donations and financial support. Of course, it can be offputting for a younger classical concert ingénue to be confronted by a sea of grey heads, but in general I have found such audience members to be friendly, engaged and enthusiastic (if sometimes a little sleepy after a good pre-concert lunch in the Wigmore restaurant!).

We shouldn’t knock audiences. They are the reason why music was written, to be shared with others, and in concert halls large and small, and even in my living room where I host informal “haus konzerte”, they provide the crucial link between music and performer - for without an audience there would be no “concert”. Read Stephen Hough’s article here.

Frances Wilson is a London-based pianist, piano teacher, concert reviewer and blogger on music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. She is a reviewer for international concert and opera listings and review site Bachtrack.com, and contributes art and exhibition reviews to US-based culture and art site CultureVulture. She writes a regular column on aspects of piano playing for ‘Pianist’ magazine’s online content, and contributes guest articles to a number of classical music and music education websites around the world, including Clavier Companion and The Sampler, the blog of SoundandMusic.org, the UK charity for new music. Frances is Artistic Director of the South London Concert Series, an innovative concert concept which gives talented amateur musicians the opportunity to perform alongside young and emerging professional and semi-professional artists in the same formal concert setting.

Read more on her blog: www.crosseyedpianist.com.

Author: Frances Wilson
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