Are you sitting quietly in a room? A classical concert can also be different

The great hall of the Concertgebouw is buzzing. The music on stage, anyway. Cleveland Orchestra plays timpani and brass from Bruckner’s ‘Scherzo’ Ninth Symphony bounce off the walls. The touching rhythms invite you to dance along, but that is not possible here. A man in the room compromises and performs a little choreography over his armrest: his thumb and forefinger swing an imaginary baton back and forth, strictly in time.

Silence and sitting still during classical concerts has always been a part of it, one would think. We consider classical music to be timeless, and so does etiquette.

The opposite is true, says Thomas Delpeut (1988). He is a lecturer in cultural history at Radboud University in Nijmegen and will soon complete a thesis on nineteenth-century concert culture in four major Dutch cities. “Take the year 1815,” he says enthusiastically. “Concert-goers had very different expectations of a concert. They were used to walking through the hall during the music. When something caught their fancy, they clapped – even when the orchestra was still playing. And if they thought something was bad, they booed.”

The halls also looked different then: in some of them there were tables where the audience sat. “Even later in the nineteenth century, you still had rooms where that layout was common.” Delpeut shows a drawing from between 1850 and 1860. ‘This is the Parkzaal, at that time one of the most important scenes in Amsterdam, located in the present Wertheim Park, near Artis. You can just see the orchestra in the background. In the foreground you see the audience.”

That audience seems most concerned with itself. Groups of dressed men and women stand around tables and talk. In the foreground you see a waiter holding up a wine glass.

Delpeut: “For most people back then, music was a background for the social scene. The crowd came late and left early. When an opera singer sang, the men stood between the seats so they could see her better. After which the women sometimes went back to the chairs so they could see the scene better.”

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For his PhD research, Delpeut worked with a database of almost twenty thousand pieces of music. In this way he learned which pieces were most programmed and in which order. He also used magazine articles, letters and minutes from concert associations to form a picture of the burgeoning concert culture.

“In the past, there was a perception that Dutch concert life only gained importance from the opening of the Concertgebouw in 1888. Finally, there was a good hall, and soon after a good orchestra. Even the public began to listen “seriously”. I am trying to show that these events are the culmination of a process that has already started.”

In the nineteenth century, there was no talk of today’s full-fledged concert life, mostly of subsidized ensembles and orchestras. But our current doubts about how we can best shape classical music life in the future – they were already there in the past. “Around 1850 there was still no fixed way of organizing concerts, nor was the description ‘classical’ widespread yet.” , says Thomas Delpeut. “An important part of musical life took place in closed concert associations, where only men were allowed to join. Women were allowed to join as guests.”

Programming is a good lens through which to view concert life, says Delpeut; it says something about musical taste and about social relations. “The later favorite formal overture, solo concerto and symphony did not yet exist. Concerts often featured a mix; symphonies, solo instruments, opera arias and romances alternated. Concerts also lasted much longer. A contemporary called it ‘Cakelbont’.”

Back then, the public came after famous, preferably virtuoso soloists. But concert promoters, musicians, critics and visitors who considered themselves true music lovers felt that ensemble music deserved the weight. They discussed the optimal program design for this purpose. Is it best to program a symphony at the beginning of a concert or at the end? Their ideas were inspired by what was happening in other European music centers.

Delpeut: “In practice, a hybrid form was dominant: you program a beloved soloist so that you can also play a symphony by Schumann. The drawing of the Parkzaal looks crazy to us now, but there people have learned to listen to Beethoven’s symphonies.”

During the nineteenth century, concert practice changed; attention shifted to the music and to listening quietly in neat rows. Around 1900, the still usual concert form of the classical concert arose, while the music played is often older. “Many people call the listening culture that emerged ‘passive,'” says Delpeut. “But the public has learned that it changed listening style itself. It was a gradual process.”

We are now used to the strict etiquette and form of ‘modern’ classical concerts. Should we let them go? “Of course, you can’t just transplant the concert from the nineteenth century to our time,” says Delpeut. “But if you realize that the past was not as rigid as is often thought, innovation becomes easier.”

Innovation

Researcher Veerle Spronck (1993) is also concerned with how to organize concerts – but she focuses on the present and got her Ph.D. this summer at the Maastricht Center for Innovation of Classical Music.

This center was founded in 2017 as a collaboration between Maastricht University, Hogeschool Zuyd and members of the South Netherlands Philharmonic. The mission: to experiment with new ways of organizing concerts. Does she see something in the nineteenth century concert form?

“I discovered that orchestras are very flexible, so yes: you can also breathe new life into ‘old’ programs. Inspiration from the past can be a great way to shape the future. But not because it should. Well, because that is also possible.”

Spronck’s research was about the ways in which orchestras try to engage audiences. “In many classical concerts there is a strict separation between the musicians and the audience. This starts at the entrance: spectators and musicians use separate doors. I’ve watched projects try to break through that ‘wall’.”

Spronck chose a performance at the new music festival Gaudeamus as an example: Three degrees from reality by the ensemble Modelo62 from The Hague.

In the Utrecht Theater Kikker, two figures in gray nuclear reactor suits instruct the audience to take off their shoes and socks and put on silver suits, ‘for protection’.

The guides drive the audience through a door which leads directly onto the stage. The floor is littered with undefinable objects. What are those cans doing here? What does this strange mountain of blankets, pillows and feathers mean? And what are those units in the corner? The musicians from Modelo62 spread across the room and created alienating soundscapes.

Towards the end of the concert, the mood turns somber: some audience members are told to “dance and enjoy” while a menacing drumbeat swells. Others must form a circle around them – which fails. Veerle Spronck looks a bit lost.

“It was a bit extreme,” she notes afterwards, somewhat relieved that the performance is over. Is this the future of the classical concert as we know it?

Spronck: “The evening offered promising elements, such as taking off shoes. It’s a ‘power move’, a way to take the audience out of the routine and make them part of the performance.”

Spronck concludes in his research that even small changes in an orchestra’s routine can greatly change the audience’s concert experience. “For example, think of the ensemble Pynarello, which plays without a score. This makes more interaction possible, they also play without a conductor. And it also benefits the audience: You can better see what is happening in the music. And the audience can sit between the musicians, because there are no desks in the way.”

Spronck’s research resonates in practice; she is currently working with the South Netherlands Philharmonic on a new experiment. She also shared her knowledge of innovation with, among other trade magazines The Orchestra and with the European network of artistic directors of concert halls ECHO. Her enthusiasm is contagious, but you also feel that there is an urgent need behind her words. “In all of the Culture Council’s reports, you will certainly come across ‘innovation’; ensembles are therefore necessary. But I also think that it is inherent in the profession of artist to ask oneself: why and how do I do what I do?

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