Ten things we should change in classical music concerts

Artistic Director Baldur Brönnimann on kids, technology, drinks and the classical concert experience

Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood recently said in an article that live classical music is off-putting . Johnny’s thoughts are great and a good perspective from somebody who comes from the outside of the classical  music world, but who really cares about it. Over the years I’ve seen and done a lot of concerts and if classical music ever wants to attract a new, younger and more engaged audience, we’ll have to think hard about certain things and step out of our own little world (as James McQuaid writes in his article for the Guardian Culture professionals network.

I often find myself sitting in a concert thinking I would never be here were it not for professional interest. This is a real shame, because to sit down in a concert hall and not do anything else other than listen for two hours is a great and quite radical experience in our lives. But there are many unspoken “rules” and conventions at classical concerts that we often accept quietly and which make the experience of classical concert worse than it should be.

1. The audience should feel free to applaud between movements

Gustav Mahler introduced the habit of sitting silently until the end of a piece and I think after some 100 years, it’s time to change that. I love it when people clap between movements. It’s a spontaneous expression of enjoyment and people should feel free to show their feelings in a concert.

2. Orchestras should tune backstage

There is something really exciting about hearing a great orchestra in a great hall. We shouldn’t spoil the impact of the first sounds of a piece by giving away so many of these magical sounds in a random way at the beginning of a concert. Works like the Lohengrin Prelude, Gigues or Lontano do sound strange after tuning onstage. They should emerge from complete silence.

3. We should be able to use mobile phones (in silent mode)

I don’t mean making phone calls, of course, but rather than switching phones off, people should be able to tweet, take pictures or record concerts silently. If people buy tickets, they should have the rights to record what they see and share their thoughts with others.

4. Programs should be less predictable

The encores are often what sticks most in people’s mind and I think programmers should take the risk and not always print the whole program, but just certain key works. There must be an element of unpredictability about a concert – if it’s a piece, a different location, a little item of chamber music or anything else. Just something unexpected.

5. You should be able to take your drinks inside the hall

You can do this in a pop concert and I don’t know why you shouldn’t in a classical concert if the hall allows  it. I like to feel relaxed at a concert, have a good time and not having to empty my glass in one after  the interval.

6. The artists should engage with the audience

Many of us do: we speak to the audience before, after or during the concerts. But this can’t be an option, it must be mandatory for every artist to at least be able to introduce a piece, greet the audience or to sign a program. On that note, I think it is a shame that the public is often prevented from going backstage after a concert. Everybody should be able to talk to the musicians and share their thoughts and opinions, if it’s backstage or in the bar. We don’t live in an ivory tower and we have an obligation to talk to the people who love music as much as we do.

7. Orchestras shouldn’t play in tail suits

That’s an old and easy one. But I think it’s still true. I don’t think the perception of an orchestra changes by simply playing in coloured shirts, but tail suits are definitely out. Too 19th century. There are classy and much better looking suit options around.

8. Concerts should be more family friendly

People with small kids want to go to concerts too, but they have to be able to leave the hall quickly and silently when the little ones get bored. Just as airlines, concert halls should do more to think about families with small kids and offer priority seats near the exits. I have never minded if a baby starts to cry during a piece, but one should be able to come and go, because some concerts can be long even for adults. Playing areas, interactive content, even child-minding facilities – concert halls need to think about families.

9. Concert halls should use more cutting-edge technology

Part of the excitement of live classical music is to see people play it up close. Nowadays we have a different visual perception than a hundred years ago, so why do concert halls not use screens to show details of a performance to people who can’t see it from the back? Or why are we not using more physical enhancement for acoustically difficult concert halls? Or offering more contents to download before and during a performance? There is an unnecessary purism about technology in concert halls, but we should move the concert experience into the 21st century. As creative artists we should be at the forefront of using technology creatively.

10. Every program should contain a contemporary piece

Along with the unexpected element, there is often a lack of relevance or cutting edge to classical programs. Every piece was once new and unexpected and we have to reconnect the classical repertoire with our contemporary lives, we must play the music of our time. This is not to say that we shouldn’t play the historical masterpieces, but classical music has become a kind of “fetishizing of the past”, as Alex Ross calls it in a great article about Beethoven’s influence on classical music for the New Yorker. Programming the great works of the past alongside the music of our own time will shed a different light on the musical past as well as the musical present.

This article is also published on Baldur Brönnimann´s webpage.