Are We Just Too Nice In America?
How the docile nature of the American classical music patron helps make classical music dull.
by Drew McManus
August 16, 2004
Music critics write about it regularly, musicians complain about it all the time, and music directors love it. What I’m talking about is the ever present, ubiquitous standing ovation that American classical music audiences distribute to orchestra, opera, and chamber groups alike.
As a matter of fact, it’s so common place that I think I’m going to start saying “there are three things in life you count on: death, taxes, and a standing ovation after even the most uninspiring performance of Mahler 2 by an American audience”. It’s a little wordy, but I think it gets my point across.
But there is a tangible determent to all of this sheepish praise; it shows that American classical music patrons have become cowed into not really being able to tell a really great performance from a mediocre one. And it’s one of the leading factors which are contributing to the decline of classical music participation in America.
The average classical music patron in this country doesn’t understand or feel comfortable enough about classical music to offer an objective opinion they have confidence in. And that isn’t necessarily their fault either.
The classical music world has always been seen as a bit of an exclusive activity in America, frequented by intellectuals and social elites. And with the introduction of the more avant-garde forms of classical music being introduced in the mid 20th century, came the beginning of the ever widening gulf between the classical music consumer and the artists which create and perform the music.
And we’re now reaping the full blown results of this process: a steadily declining number of doe-eyed patrons that will rise to their feet the moment the music stops for a few seconds with Pavlovian regularity.
This phenomenon also has much to due with the general polite nature of American society.
At it’s heart, America is still a puritanical culture. Even with Britney Spear’s gyrating belly button and Janet Jackson’s boob, American’s are still pretty much a collection of politically correct folks that go out of their way not to offend each other.
Continental Europeans aren’t this way. They still boo and yell cat calls to opera singers and orchestras that give less than inspiring performances. The audience in attendance at La Scala’s 1992 production of Verdi's "Don Carlo" actually booed none other than Luciano Pavarotti ample caboose right off the stage for hitting a sour note.
And although everyone’s human and deserves to make a mistake or two, patrons should still hold them accountable when they aren’t performing up to expected levels of professionalism.
Yet, there are facets of American culture that do regularly include negative audience participation; professional sports. I still have vivid memories of football fans booing Dallas Cowboy Deion Sanders for his underserved showboating antics or baseball fans yelling and hissing at Atlanta Braves pitcher, John Rocker for unprofessional behavior off the playing field.
This difference isn’t just the natural separation between sports and performance art; it’s the difference between enthusiasts that know the difference between good and bad.
If you listen to sports commentators, they habitually compare the game they’re calling to a prominent match from the past. It’s a level of knowledge and understanding that fans relate to and aspire toward, and it’s a level of participation that classical music currently lacks.
Another unexpected consequence from all of this faux praise is it makes live classical music concerts dull and unappealing. Part of what makes pro sports games fun and exciting is that unknown live interactive component.
Being able to have the freedom and confidence to verbally cheer or jeer gives you a sense of ownership and involvement. It turns a passive activity into something inclusive that inspires continued participation.
So how do we get from her to there? We can’t just start showing up to concerts booing and cat calling for the sake of it or else it will come across as some sort of “Jackass” like, made for shock-T.V. stunt.
Well, the first step is to include a much greater amount of interaction between patrons and artists. The more the audience knows about what’s going on, the more we’ll begin to see people “refusing” to stand up after mediocre concerts. Then perhaps the collective audience will be brave enough to only offer half-hearted applause. And finally, one day, we’ll reach a point were members of the audience will feel confident enough to express their dissatisfaction of having spent a good sum of cash for a ticket to attend a less than worthy performance by offering up a “boo”.
People will probably be driving hover-cars powered by their own sense of self-esteem by then to see the only live full time orchestra left in America, but at least it will be happening.
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