Classical's Wild Years

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Reading accounts of concerts in the days of Beethoven, it’s evident that what we now call Classical Music was in fact the arena rock of its time. Orchestras played almost free-form events, with movements of a symphony played again, immediately, if they went over well the first time, and solo virtuoso displays between pieces (and sometimes between movements of pieces). They were like a variety show, and the conductor could make snap decisions based on the audience response.

Sounds like fun, huh? But that could never happen today, because the audience doesn’t respond in the kind of vocal, even vociferous manner of the 19th century. Sometimes that’s not a bad thing – Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring provoked fisticuffs in the audience, which I maintain is a breach of decorum anywhere outside the mosh pit. But if conductors today tried to tailor their programs according to the audience’s reaction, they’d be at sea. That’s because we as audience members have been told to sit up straight and keep quiet – the musical version of “eat your vegetables, they’re good for you.”

But what do we do? A noisy audience upsets some performers and when the music’s quiet, you DO have to tone it down. Is there a happy medium between the stifling decorum of most classical concerts and the deafening free-for-all of a rock club? What do you think? Leave a comment.