Culture | Clapping at all the wrong times

Honorary doctorate recipient gives a class in the quirks of classical ettiquette

Before the kilted pipers called the ceremonies to order, I gazed around, finding myself immersed in a sea of white hair. While Montreal has thus far been spared of snow, the scene in Salle Pollack Hall early in the afternoon on October 15, was equally chilling.
The stage in Salle Pollack was strangely arranged like a scene out of a medieval court, complete with a 10 foot high makeshift throne. McGill Principal Heather Monroe-Blum and several high-ranking administrators from the Faculty of Music were there to present legendary classical pianist, Alfred Brendel with an Honary Doctorate. Brendel, of the class of 1979, is one of the leading classical performers of the past century, receiving numerous honours for his performances from the Germanic classical repertoire, particularly his complete recordings of the Beethoven Sonatas. Brendel stopped performing in December of 2008, instead dedicating himself to public lectures and his equally-acclaimed writings. These writings have proven immensely insightful to countless music students.
On the afternoon of his lecture, we were all students of music. Upon receiving the honorary doctorate from McGill, Dr. Brendel launched into a performance lecture entitled, Should Classical Music Be So Serious? As much as McGill has endeared me to administrative functions, I was there for the lecture. I was there because there was something I was expecting to hear. But, before discussing Brendel’s lecture, let me send you on a necessary diversion.
There is a mounting concern that classical music, especially the world of opera, is geared towards an aged elite class. In a recent NPR blog, ”Is opera stuff (only) rich people like?,” Anastasia Tsioulcas bemoaned a New York Times article which described a $295 plate at NYC’s best restaurant, Per Se, as a bargain when compared to aisle seats at the Metropolitan Opera, which regularly sell for $300 each. Cost, however, is not the only thing that might be driving away young classical enthusiasts. Mainly, a downright suffocating cultural atmosphere pervades many symphonic halls. There is a code of etiquette surrounding classical performance, which I was hoping Brendel would address, which he did…to a degree. Although Brendel’s lecture was a springboard for this piece, consider the following my own opinions:
In an age when trends in music change as quickly as an iTunes song shuffle, the classical music industry needs to catch up. This isn’t to say that efforts to attract a younger audience are non-existent. In fact, most orchestras, opera companies, and performance halls advertise deals geared towards the younger-than-35-set (the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal offers student tickets for $25, for example). Even so, many classical outlets could afford to cater to more economically modest music enthusiasts. As proof that many classical institutions have strong ties to the so-called “1 per cent,” Tsiolcas noted how the New York Metropolitan received a 50 per cent endowment increase to $182 million amidst the height of the Great Recession.
The classical music industry, grappling with the need for wider appeal (and of course future donors) is at a crossroads – while the 20th century involved unprecedented leaps in the way we hear and understand classical music, a sense of tradition pervades. However, the way we perform the music may not be as close to the past we revere. In 2008, the Scottish Pianist and Music Historian, Kenneth Hamilton, reminded us of a time when the world of classical music was more rock concert than art auction. In his book, After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance, Hamilton describes a time when classical audiences were unruly and interruptive, and where longer compositions, such as Chopin’s E Minor Piano Concerto, would feature interludes by other composers. And, surprisingly, the composers loved it. “Silence is not what we artists want,” Hamilton quotes from Beethoven, “we want applause.”
And now, back to the lecture. Brendel spoke clearly and convincingly, punctuating his ideas with expertly crafted musical examples, performed from memory. Bemoaning many modern performers for their emotional stiffness, Brendel suggested that performance should honor the diversity of emotions within a piece. His inquiry, “where does one look for the comic in music?”, is not only a question for the listening audience, but also for the performer. There has always been a constant dialogue at play between audience and performer, which, due to several trends in the past century, has grown nearly silent. Performers have put themselves on a pedestal, and, in response to this, the modern classical audience has adopted an etiquette that speaks more of religious ritual than musical bliss.
As a musician myself, I respect the struggle of the performer. But, for me, persona is second to art, and art has a life of its own. My question remains: if a performer can express a composer’s humour, why can’t we laugh back? Why is audience response such a faux pas? Naturally, nobody would find it obscene to cry at the end of moving piece of music, say, Mahler’s Second Symphony (or any his symphonies, for that matter). Therefore, if we can cry, why can’t we clap?
If classical music wants to be young again, it needs to take a step back from the mirror. When classical music can laugh at itself (and not polite laughter, I mean real guffaws), then the music will stop fading grey. And I might applaud too.