Ralph Vaughan Williams, Serenade to Music
Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125
It’s fitting that during the first Wichita Symphony concert I reviewed for the Eagle last fall, a piece was delayed by a ringing cell phone, and at the last Classics concert of the season, the ending of another piece was interrupted by the same intrusion. This time I felt the need to mention it in the published article; it’s not usually my practice to review the audience, unless their reaction provides insight into the performance. In this case, however, it was too obvious to ignore, and a spoiled moment remains spoiled whether it’s the fault of the performers or something external.
I’m also not much interested in the ritual of public shaming that inevitably accompanies this sort of transgression: it could happen to anyone through a moment of forgetfulness, and the individual was (I hope) mortified enough by the experience to avoid it in the future. I report it as a reminder for future concerts: come on, people.
I should add that I wouldn’t demand total silence during a performance, even if it were within my power. The occasional burst of applause, the movement of bodies, even the coughing that sometimes comes unbidden during the softest passage: these are human sounds, and they have been with us since the first public concerts. They are reminders that concertgoing is a communal experience.
Critic Alex Ross has written about the rule of silence, and the transformation of the rowdy public concerts of the eighteenth century into the solemn “Temple of Music” we have now. Of particular interest is his research into the “no applause” rule, under which the audience is expected to remain silent between movements and only show their appreciation at the end (a practice that has taken root only since the early twentieth century; many first-hand reports indicate that composers such as Mozart experienced, and even counted on, applause between–or within!–movements that could be truly described as “crowd-pleasing”). Ross writes:
As a listener, I don’t need total silence to help me to understand the music, even less to register its emotional impact. To the contrary, I find this ponderous silence forced, unsettling, and in places absolutely anti-musical, as after the big movements of concertos. It’s crazy for three thousand people to sit in Carnegie Hall contemplating Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto as if it were some Buddhist monument, rather than a rousing, passionate entertainment.
As it happens, the enthusiasm of Saturday’s audience was such that there was vigorous applause after not only the first, but also the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. That is a sound that no musician would mind hearing during a performance.