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September 19, 2011

Monday Musings: The perennial problem of thoughtless audiences

Not to belabor a point, but last Thursday's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert at the Meyerhoff turned out to be such an ordeal that I just have to vent a bit more.

When people tell me that they have stopped going to performances because of audience distractions, I always try to argue that the value of live music-making is still so high that it's worth putting up with the occasional burst of boorish behavior. I am beginning to doubt myself.

The nonsense I witnessed turned this concert into something, well, disconcerting. Time and again, my ears were forced to choose between the profundity of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony and ...

the crackling of a plastic bag that contained something of such interest to the woman in front of me that she reached for it every few minutes -- all the way through a nearly 90-minute performance.

When she wasn't doing that, she was opening and closing and dropping her program book. Or squirming in her seat. Or nudging her husband and pointing up to the vocal soloist located stage-left above the orchestra. (Amazingly, she made the effort to muffle her frequent sneezes, but one credit didn't erase all those debits.)

People turning to stare at her didn't deter her in the slightest, as you can imagine. Those who become a menace at performances invariably exude a combination of oblivion and entitlement.

Consider the several cases of concert-desertion during the Mahler. These folks departed at will as the music was being played, no matter how many others in their rows were disrupted in the process. And, as I mentioned in my review, one guy waited to leave until one of the most glorious moments in the finale of the "Resurrection" (talk about The Rapture!) -- only to calmly stroll back and plow back to his seat very shortly after.

Anyone capable of missing even 10 seconds of that transcendent vocal/orchestral passage needs therapy -- and an usher barring his return.

Are we getting ruder? Are too many people attending performances just because it's something they do, not something they deeply desire? Is there anything that can be done to change the behavior?

Announcements about turning off cell phones are routinely made (not, usually, at the BSO's Meyerhoff concerts, where such eruptions are commonplace), so would it help if pre-performance admonishments about bad manners were also delivered?

If we could keep away all the people who have no real interest in the music, how full would the concert halls or opera houses be?

It seems so obvious that people should be able to behave as long as they are in the room -- and that, if they want to flee, they should do so at the least damaging moment and in the least annoying manner as possible. It seems so obvious that people should cover their mouths when coughing.

It also seems so obvious that a live performance should be quite unlike anything you are used to at home (no matter how great a sound system you have), and that the differences include no talking, no eating or drinking, no rustling, no jangling (women wearing 350 bracelets on each arm are a particular pet peeve of mine), no wandering in and out.

It should just involve old-fashioned, fully concentrated listening in a communal environment with like-minded worshipers at the altar of art and culture.

Is that really, really too much to ask?


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:19 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Monday Musings


My favorite experience was at an NSO concert last year. I am all for exposing children to Classical Music and teaching them proper concert behavior/etiquette...but there is a right time and place. This was not it. A woman 2 rows behind us brought her toddler along. He began the concert babbling. To "quiet" him, she pulled out her iphone so he could watch Dora (with the sound on). He still babbled. After we gave her a few dirty looks, during a pause between movements, she moved to another seat. Midway through the next movement, I looked over and noticed she was breast-feeding him in the middle of the Concert Hall...during a performance. Horrors.

"Are we getting ruder? Are too many people attending performances just because it's something they do, not something they deeply desire? Is there anything that can be done to change the behavior?"

The entire thing boils down to that single part of your comments. I'd suggest 'yes' to all three, though the last is most difficult. I recall a performance at the Hippodrome where someone directly behind me began talking incessantly during the overture. I tried as politely as possible to stare them into silence and, failing that, asked them to stop. The reaction was, as you suggest, oblivion and entitlement (apparently I was the rude one for my admonishment). The chatty person also informed me that "it's only the overture", as though that part of the music was both unimportant and somehow separate from the performance and that my desire to hear it was unreasonable. I later learned that this also applied to select songs she knew and sang along with or commented on.

So, peer pressure - which I would suggest is the most obvious attempt at a solution - may or may not work, depending on the level of boorishness, oblivion and entitlement at work. Surely, at the symphony, an usher could prevent re-entry at inopportune moments, but it really comes down to simple courtesy and understanding. You either have it or you don't. And if you don't, you will not only be noisy, rude and leave when you feel like it, but return and see no problem at all as you trample a row of patrons attempting to both see/hear the performance and pondering their decision to come in the first place - or ever to return. It's a struggle.

I have no answer to may of the questions, but I think I should point out that during the time that much of the music that we hear in concert, rowdy behaviour was the rule rather than the exception. Scary, no?

The worst is when it's a fairly well-known piece and people start humming along like it's "Edelweiss." I went to the preview concert for the BSO, and although it was less formal, I was taken aback at people humming loudly to Aaron Copland's "Simple Gifts" for multiple bars, struggling to keep up with the clarinet, etc. It's not an "older generation" vs. "younger generation" thing when it comes to rude. Across the board, people don't think about others. I'd like to find the moment in history where concerts went from orchestra pits to mosh pits and sing-alongs.

People don't stand for the Hallelujah Chorus anymore. People let their kids run around church and the bank, etc. Every performance gets a standing ovation at the end (which I believe should be reserved for truly amazing pieces.) I swear I'm not Victorian! But is a little decorum too much to ask?

I'm relieved to know a few chamber music series where audiences so far take the proceedings seriously and are the picture of courtesy and attention. Perhaps chamber music doesn't attract the kind of person who approaches the symphony as a social event, an event where one goes to be seen (and heard)? Or it's harder to get away with such disruptions in a smaller audience?

Perhaps concert halls need to install those soundproof plexiglass “family area” type rooms that you see sometimes in churches and synagogues. The ticketing agent could ask a couple questions with the order to determine if a patron needs to be seated in the “special area.” They’d get the sound piped in and they could unwrap their candies and walk in and out to their heart’s content without disturbing anyone else. Heck, vendors could sell popcorn and hot dogs to make some extra money for the symphony. :-)

I think you've got something there. TIM

I just caught up to your musings about audience behavior, and it brought to mind the Sept.15 BSO concert. A couple in the next section opened their cell phones and seemed to text throughout the Mahler. Beyond the light distraction, what made it doubly irritating is that the couple was sitting in the left side box often occupied by BSO officials, none of whom seemed to object.


On the flip side, I have a memory of exemplary audience behavior for your consideration. When we first moved to Baltimore we subscribed to the Pro Musica Rara, when their home was in Lovely Lane. One Christmas concert featured a number in which the audience was instructed to stand and sing along--in German. My husband was scoffing (quietly) to himself when the audience rose as one and burst out in full voice--and pretty good German, too. We were in awe.

Yes, that's exactly what orchestras need: a lecture about manners before a concert! I don't think you're going to win any audience members over by admonishing their behavior. As a classical musician myself, one thing I do know is that many avoid concerts because they feel judged and uncomfortable with their unfamiliarity with the orchestra concert experience. Let's maybe cool it a bit with the harsh criticism. After all, audience "misbehavior" isn't new to classical music. Overtures, for example, used to serve the purpose of letting rowdy audiences know that the opera was starting. The idea of treating concerts with an almost religious piety is very off-putting to people, but maybe they could print concert etiquette in the front of the program?

I'm a professional actor and musician and have been forced to endure rude and negligent audience behavior on many occasions. I stopped going to most cinemas and concerts several years ago due to constant audience talking and cell phone use. Thank goodness for Netflix and CDs. There is no such thing as public manners anymore and the condition gets worse with each passing year. Concert and film venues need to educate and enforce etiquette rules for audiences. Until they do, I take my money elsewhere. I am not hopeful.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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