As it turns out, even Gillian Moore, the head of music at the Southbank Centre, is a victim of elitism in classical music. Last week, she wrote a piece for Sinfini Music about some recent experiences she has had in the concert hall, noting a moment when a fellow audience member rebuked her for moving while the music was playing. The scolder even went so far as to advise her to ‘stay at home next time’, because she clearly didn’t know how to ‘behave in concerts’.
The account is startling, not least because of who was involved; one of the most influential and respected figures in classical music got told off, like an errant schoolgirl, for misbehaving. Understandably, she and her companion felt upset and humiliated from the experience. The worst of it is this wasn’t an isolated incident; similar things have happened to her numerous times.
In the last three months, I have also been made to feel uncomfortable and out of place in the last two out of four ‘traditional’ classical concerts I’ve been to. The first happened at the BBC Proms. A man two rows behind my friend and I told us to ‘sit down, for goodness sake. It’s not finished’ as the audience was clapping after the final movement of a concerto in the first half (the concerto, by the way, was the final piece in the programme, but my friend and I didn’t know that this would normally be a time for an encore so we stood up ready to go and get some fresh air). After being put in our place, we quickly sat back down again for the encore, with our tails between our legs.
My biggest regret about the whole saga was that I chose not to stand up for myself. Like Gillian, I am a seasoned concert-goer and I will always go to another concert because, well, that’s just what I enjoy doing. But if it was my first time, I’m inclined to think my reaction would have been very different. I just wish I sucked up my British fear of confrontation and let my reprimander know that there is more than one way to behave in a concert hall.
There are plenty of initiatives in place within the sector to tackle the stuffy and inaccessible perception of classical music. Concert series like the OAE NightShift and City of London Sinfonia’s CLoSer break down the barriers and rules that you would traditionally be subject to in a concert hall: silence; dress codes; applause at specified moments and (my pet hate) programme notes that resemble PhD theses. Schemes have also been created to enable young people to access cheap tickets, guides written to make outsiders more comfortable, and cross-cultural programmes introduced as a way to entice new-comers to the art. There are certainly signs that, from the industry side, the elitist problem has been identified and is beginning to be tackled. Long-standing conservative conventions are being challenged, outsiders are being welcomed and barriers are being broken. But where does the audience fit in to this? If new-comers are still being rebuffed for ‘inappropriate behaviour’, it seems they still have a long way to go…
And so it seems to me that the problem of elitism in classical music no longer lies with the industry; the professionals are making the changes necessary and now it is the audience that needs to be brought up to speed. And so, in this vein, here is my (not) very British concert etiquette to push those reprimanding audience members in the right direction:
- Enjoy the music, the sights, the atmosphere, the experience. That’s what you’re there to do.
- Be considerate of those around you, just as you would at at the cinema or theatre
- Remember that you have as much right as anyone else to be there. Stand up for yourself if someone else thinks differently.