The Orchestra and the Audience, Making Beautiful Music

Classic Arts Features   The Orchestra and the Audience, Making Beautiful Music
At live concerts, performers and listeners join together to form a duet of sorts. New York Philharmonic musicians and audience members share their perspectives on this interplay.

A concert begins even before the music starts, when the audience finds its seats and the musicians take the stage. This is the moment when the two camps are getting ready to engage in a kind of dialogue that exists only in the concert hall, a dialogue that can be transcendent. Even before the first downbeat, the musicians onstage are well aware of the audience. Many of them recognize familiar faces among the patrons or exchange nods with friends who have come to hear them.

"I see people come in and take their seats," says Liang Wang, the New York Philharmonic's Principal Oboe. On occasion he walks to the front of the stage and chats with the audience. He elaborates: "Sometimes my friends are there. It's all a lovely part of the personal experience of concertgoing."

Then it's the musicians' turn: they tune up : prompted by the oboist (Mr. Wang) giving them their A. The time has come for the audience to enter the concert conversation, metaphorically, of course, for musicians can hear the audience, too. The conductor enters, and the concert officially begins. "I am pretty focused on the music," Mr. Wang says. "If you are really, actually concentrating, it's hard to notice anything else but the music."

Still, there is a certain something about playing for a live audience that affects the performance. "Audiences are important to what we do. We're not playing just for ourselves, we're trying to communicate," says Carol Webb, a violinist with the Philharmonic for 32 years, who often sits at the very edge of the stage. She is familiar with many patrons who are seated near the front of the house, and is well aware when they pay attention or not. Mr. Wang also finds that the listeners' attention is palpable: "It doesn't happen every day, but if there's a sort of magic in the air, people are just completely in tune with the music."

Audience members agree. "The experience of being there is transcendent," declares Michael Atkinson, a recent single-ticket buyer. "After all the orchestras I've heard and CDs I've bought, the one thing the Philharmonic tends to do better than anyone is very large repertoire, especially the Mahler symphonies. It has a huge sound palette."

"I'm definitely aware of the musicians and the audience at the same time," says Jody Martini, whose family has had tickets to the Philharmonic since 1946 and who takes her role in the concert partnership very seriously. "Both of my children play an instrument, and I'm a Suzuki parent, so I have had to essentially go back and learn an instrument along with them," she explains. "I have a personal appreciation for how difficult it is for musicians, so I concentrate on that a lot [during concerts]. I also have very good seats. I grew up with my family going to the Philharmonic, and we're right in front of the soloist, so you can actually see them playing."

In today's concert world quiet is encouraged, although back in Mozart's day, talking during a performance was the norm. In fact, a symphony was often played during dinner, so musicians would hear applause, chatter, the clatter of cutlery, the bustle of waiters, and who knows what other kinds of noises. It wasn't until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the still-current concert protocols emerged. It was then that the concert hall experience evolved into something approaching what one expects at certain religious services, which generally call for silence in appreciation of a higher power.

Unfortunately, some fail to meet this lofty goal, to the disappointment of their neighbors and, indeed, the musicians. "Sometimes, right before you're trying to make this gorgeous, delicate sound, somebody coughs, and it throws you off," Mr. Wang explains. "I don't mind that people cough, if you can't control it. But I think people should have a certain respect not just for the musicians, but for the music. We're playing a lot of materpieces and great music. We want to share it with the listeners, and we don't want noise to destroy the experience for others."

Much of the trouble may be explained by today's restless society. After all, concertgoing involves a degree of concentration. A freelance musician himself, Mr. Atkinson learned early on to pay attention, to remain quiet, to let the music : rather than himself : speak. Ms. Webb took her daughters to concerts often when they were young so that they learned how to behave. "My kids were not allowed to come unless they had 'concert manners,'" she says. "They were dressed, they were silent. They had to sit respectfully and be part of the event."

Ms. Martini recalls, "I didn't go to concerts very much as a young child because I don't think I would have been able to sit through them." She adds: "A four-year-old cannot sit through the Philharmonic at night." Her children (now ages 9 and 19) "started with things that were age appropriate until they came to have their own appreciation for music, and now they can sit still and relate to it on their own level."

And they all learned when to clap : a key part of the concert experience for audience and orchestra alike. Today the general practice is to clap only at the end of a complete work : not between movements, and certainly not within movements. "I don't remember learning when to clap until later," says Mr. Atkinson. "But I don't think many musicians actually mind clapping between movements. I sure don't care. Personally, I feel : the age being what it is : we shouldn't inhibit any audience member having any kind of feeling at a concert."

For Mr. Wang, clapping is a key element in a performance. "I want to communicate with an audience," he observes. "Clapping is part of it. I try to reach somebody. I want them to come back again and again."

That is just what Ms. Martini, a long-time Philharmonic "collaborator," has been doing for decades. "It's a special thing to be able to carve out a few hours of time on a semi-regular basis," she says, "to relax, listen to music, and hear these incredible performers."


Robert J. Hughes, a longtime reporter for The Wall Street Journal, is an arts writer in New York City and the author of the novel Late and Soon.

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