I think it’s because I’m coming back to doing fairly standard classical (often orchestral) concerts after a period of doing very few, but I was struck again at Friday’s gig by the sheer force of unexplained tradition when it comes to art music performance. I think I’ve written about it before, but it bears some repetition.
Why do audiences clap when performers walk on, having not done anything to be applauded on? Does anyone else get the temptation to bow and walk off, as merely arriving on stage has apparently been an adequately satisfying performance? Equally, why do many audiences applaud the orchestra off stage at the end of the concert as well – when they have usually just been applauding all the performers generally and in as many different permutations as the imagination of the conductor can devise? (Got to love the stand-up, sit-down routine, especially when various wind and brass are clearly not sure whether they are meant at a given point.)
The dress codes. Seriously. I think I’m unusual among male musicians in recent decades in having managed to get some wear out of my black tie gear between the ages of 18 and 28 other than at concerts, largely because of going to an Oxford college where they have black tie balls every 3 years. At least women generally get to wear almost anything black and not too revealing – but if they don’t reckon black suits them, it will still be an essentially unnecessary expense. It’s not like ‘orchestral black’ is the only conceivable way to achieve a smart and reasonably coherent appearance.
OK, this one really gets me. A standard part of an orchestra leader’s job (even if a sometimes quite unnecessary one) is supervising tuning in rehearsals. And yet in concerts, at least the more traditional ones, the leader will delegate this role to their desk partner, and then walk on (to a separate round of applause, of course) after the orchestra have tuned – having presumably either tuned offstage or decided to chance it. Surely this just drags out stage business (which no one came for) at potentially the expense of musical quality?
It was a bit of a relief when Friday’s audience applauded fairly freely between movements. If this is going to be destructive, it’s usually pretty obvious (the players and, most visibly, the conductor won’t relax between movements, but rather carry on more like a long rest than a stop and start of something new). As I’ve more or less written before, if it doesn’t interrupt the musical construct for the players to relax, shuffle, turn pages, stretch their shoulders and possibly even retune, then it won’t interrupt for the audience to clap. And a lot more than a few seconds’ applause separated symphonic movements until into the nineteenth century, after all.
I find this an ironic contrast with so-called ‘traditional music’ (in Britain). Not least because most of the norms around the latter have sprung up in the last 60 years or so (whereas classical norms, while still very arriviste compared to most of the music they are applied to and certainly more recent than most people expect, were mostly approaching their current form by about 1920). When was the last time you saw a British folk band with no guitar? And yet I am assured by well-researched histories that no-one thought of accompanying British folk songs or tunes with guitar until into the 1950s. Guitar was for jazz, American music of various kinds, or the classical repertoire – using it for folk was no more instinctive than playing folk with drumkit, saxophone or tuba. With that goes the whole notion of approaching folk song (particularly; but also dance tunes) through vertical set harmonies – guitar chords – whereas as far as I understand it most secular folk pre-WW2 was harmonised in a very ‘horizontal’ way with semi-improvised supporting lines that could all be considered counter-melodies to some extent. (There is a separate issue of those musicians, like church band-choirs before the hegemony of the organ, and marching bands, who used sheet music in general but arguably belong more to the folk ‘world/tradition’ than the classical one.) And of course giving ultimate balance and level control to sound engineers has become so prevalent that more folk performances than not are actually fully wired, even while mostly carefully sticking to (electro-)acoustic instruments. But all of this is a rambling coda to the original thought …