What happens when audiences are encouraged to talk during concerts?

Rebecca HutterFri 24th May 2013

Concert hall or classroom? Rebecca Hutter takes a seat to find out more...

This week I was invited along to a 'MusicUpClose' concert, held at the Conway Hall in London. The idea of this concert series, performed by postgraduate students from Trinity Laban Conservatoire and professional players from The Sound Collective, is that audiences have the opportunity to ask the conductor and players questions during the course of the evening. I have seen and heard it done before on Radio 3 broadcasts, but this had quite a different and imaginative feel to it. 

There were only about 40 of us in the audience and the chairs were positioned in a circle around the ensemble, which automatically set an informal tone to the evening. After the first Vivaldi concerto, the conductor spoke about the piece, and then opened the questions up to the floor. I’m often a little apprehensive towards events that rely upon audience participation - imagining that all too familiar classroom feeling of collective silence, waiting uncomfortably for the first person to crack – but this was not the case at all, and dozens of hands flew up all around the room right away.

There was a huge range of questions. Some focused on individual instrumental techniques (‘is it harder to play a trumpet with or without valves?’) and orchestral balance (‘why couldn’t I hear the harpsichord?’), whereas others wondered why they might have felt a particular emotion when listening to the different pieces of music. Although the questions might have sounded simplistic on the surface, the responses weren’t in any way patronising, and I even picked up some quirky anecdotes along the way. 

It got me thinking about the way classical audiences hardly ever talk about those very basic principles of the music. Unless you arrive to the concert early enough to read the - dare I say often pretentious and verbose - programme notes, there is no real way of understanding the music or what is going on if you are not a regular concert-goer. And, even if you do read the programme, it’s not always obvious to understand why something is happening on even the most practical level if you haven’t had experience of performing yourself. 

Lots of orchestras are experimenting with this type of audience-performer interaction and many studies have proved the huge impact it has on the majority of first time classical music audiences. It’s hardly surprising that this increased communication and explanation makes viewing much more enjoyable for audiences, for both new and regular concert-goers, yet so many conductors and orchestras still continue their seemingly strict concert ‘regime’ and pay little, if any, regard to the audience until the final applause. 

After all, isn’t it the commentary that makes watching events on TV preferable for so many? Whether it’s a music concert, sports match or public event, broadcasters managed to realise the value of explanation years ago, so why not do the same when live if you have the capability to do so?

I’m not trying to draw any conclusions about whether it’s right or wrong, helpful or unhelpful, to have discussions during a concert. But, it was evident that after this particular event, the conversations between audience members were much more animated than the somewhat affected murmurings I often hear when leaving a concert venue! Although in many ways the evening felt more like a seminar than a concert, it was definitely an interesting concept and something I would go along to again. Perhaps next time, I will go with a few more questions up my sleeve.


Rebecca Hutter

Rebecca recently completed a music degree at the University of Nottingham. She is currently studying for a masters degree in journalism at City University London. Find her on Twitter @rebeccahutter.

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