An Evening At The Philistines

In an effort to better become stodgy old farts, my wife and I have started attending concerts by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. There’s always an ongoing effort to freshen up the audience and bring in new people, since the regular concert goers have a tendency to routinely drop dead of extreme old age, thereby depriving the orchestra of additional ticket sales. The problem with bringing in the new blood is that most of them don’t know basic classical music etiquette.

If you’ve never been to a classical music concert before, the big thing to remember — aside from not snoring audibly when you fall asleep and refraining from sending the conductor requests for your favourite Steppenwolf tune — is to resist the urge to applaud between movements. Just because the orchestra has stopped playing, it doesn’t mean the piece of music is over. If it’s a symphony, they’re going to stop and start again a few times before they’re done. This means you can relax and take a break from all that tiresome clapping for the better part of an hour. You may also seize the opportunity during these intervals to cough and clear your throat. This is what my wife refers to as the tuberculosis-ward effect as suddenly an audience of many hundreds of people is transformed into a hacking, snorting cacophony of illness by everyone who has been holding it in for the last ten-minute stretch of music.

Only once the entire piece has been played to completion do you give the orchestra a big round of applause. If you can’t tell when they’re switching over to the next movement — or if you don’t know how to count to four — wait until everyone else who seems to know what they’re doing starts clapping. Then join in. And presto! You suddenly don’t look like an idiot.

Unfortunately, this piece of advice gets tripped up if the audience is loaded with several hundred idiots all at once. Such was the case earlier this week when I watched an increasingly exasperated Kent Nagano try to get the MSO through a performance of Beethoven’s fourth symphony. The first movement ended with nearly half the attendees joining in for some thunderous, inappropriate, ill-timed applause. Nagano paused so long before proceeding to the second movement, I got the distinct impression he was trying to punish the audience.

The skill of a conductor is determined largely by how much hair he has to flop around when the music is at its most bombastic. A shaggy mane whipping about like a throw rug hanging from a clothesline in a wind storm will put you in the upper echelons of your craft. A decent sized mullet can still land you a position with a major philharmonic for a season or two. A crew cut, however, is career suicide. And if you go bald, you might as well roll over and die while you’re at it. Kent Nagano is clearly a world class conductor. Look at all that sexy hair!

Apparently, some of the veteran concert goers began to instruct the newbies about correct concert procedure, because the amount of applause at the end of the second movement was halved. By the end of the third movement, only one remaining moron in the balcony was left cheering and clapping enthusiastically. He was curtly reprimanded by a harsh, anonymous “Shhhh!” After that, the audience behaved themselves through the remainder of Beethoven’s fourth, the entirety of his eighth, and two violin concertos. But with each concert, it’s like there’s a whole new class of students that needs to learn the hard way. For my part, all I can do is sit there with an annoyed expression on my face and look down my nose at these knuckle-dragging rubes. And that’s the whole point of going to cultural events such as these, isn’t it? To feel superior. Oh God, how I love to feel superior!

Mind you, even as I wallow in my self-styled form of cultural snobbery, I have to draw the line somewhere. There’s a point where classical music hits a wall for me and stops being entertaining — a point where it transforms, as if by magic, into impenetrable pretentious hogwash. This point is somewhere around the mid-twentieth century, in the neoclassical period, when the new interesting composers gravitated towards film composition and the utterly unmarketable ones remained sequestered in their concert halls, growing increasingly experimental and unlistenable.

Which brings us to the period we find ourselves in now. Neo-neoclassical perhaps; whatever they’re going to end up calling twenty-first century classical music. In a program otherwise dominated by compositions from the mid-nineteenth century, Kent Nagano decided to include Unsuk Chin‘s violin concerto which he originally debuted in 2002. It was being recorded live, for a later CD release. And it’s not an album I expect to pick up.

I’m not a fan of abstract art. Abstract music, even less so. I nearly laughed out loud the first time I saw the violin soloist turn the page of her sheet music. “Someone actually wrote this shit down?” I wondered. Four movements later it sounded like the orchestra was still warming up. When they came back from intermission and began tuning their instruments for the second half of the concert, I was concerned we were being subjected to a fifth movement someone had jotted down backstage during the break.

Ok, fine. So maybe I’m not the high-cultured uber-snob I think I am. At least I’m better than the woman who sat next to me and spent the whole concert checking her text messages, jangling her noisy jewelry, and napping. No, not my wife. The woman on my other side. My wife knows good music when she hears it. Which is why, after the concert, we went home, comforted in the knowledge that while we were out we had recorded the other can’t-miss musical event of the evening. It was the first night of the new season of American Idol, when all the would-be pop stars crawl of the woodwork to audition by the tens of thousands. Now there’s great music.

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