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Classical Notes

Not clear on the concept?

Posted at 12:57 PM on February 14, 2007 by John Birge
Filed under: Claude Debussy, The blog

Recently read this on NewMusicBox.com, in which Frank Oteri observes people walking out of concerts:

"I wonder what prompts people with such tender constitutions to attend concerts in the first place. Admittedly, I've witnessed these impromptu leave-takings more frequently during a piece of new music injected into an otherwise standard repertoire program. But last week I saw someone rush to the doors during a New York Philharmonic performance of Debussy's 'Images.' Debussy can drive 'em away -- who knew! And a few summers ago I also witnessed a mass exodus during Brian Ferneyhough's opera 'Shadowtime.' Didn't the folks who bought tickets for this show know what they were getting into? ... If you live in a city, you're bombarded with all sorts of sonic disturbances ... And even if you live in the 'burbs, you still occasionally have to deal with crying babies, barking dogs, etc. So what kind of hermetically-sealed environment do folks who march out of concerts mid-piece live in that they deem the music to be unduly gnarly?"

Okay, point taken. At my first NYPhil concert 25 years ago, a couple in front of me spent the entire first half synchronizing their Day Planners, oblivious to 45 minutes of Vivaldi and Hindemith unfolding on stage. So much for those erudite New York audiences. I assume there will always be those who are clueless and unmoved by the music no matter where they are.

But beyond that, perhaps people walk out of concerts not because the contemporary piece they are hearing disturbs their quietude, but because it's bad art, and has nothing to say to them. I'm a patient listener with a degree in music. I have an open mind, open ears, and lots of exposure to and context with contemporary music (for three years I was the United States representative to the International Rostrum of Composers at UNESCO in Paris). But I still hear lots of music on a regular basis that makes me want to leave the hall. If anything, I wish audiences felt less stigma about doing just that, and more freedom to vote with their feet.

If it was simply a matter of being averse to "sonic disturbances," people would be leaving movie theaters in droves every night of the week at Dolby THX suburban multiplexes across the land. But be it cinema or concert hall (or radio station for that matter), they'll stay -- if the art that's presented to them has a compelling story to tell, one that makes them so engaged that they can't wait for the next scene, the next movement, the next chapter. Art that makes them excitedly anticipate: "What happens next?"

So: what keeps you in your seat?