How to Cope with Concert Hall Distractions

Thursday, October 07, 2010 - 12:56 PM

I’ve been distracted at concerts lately. And a surprising blog post got me thinking about live performances, and about what is demanded of us by the idea of truly listening to music.

After seeing the opening-night performance of the Metropolitan Opera’s new Das Rheingold, theater critic Kelly Nestruck wrote in a blog for the London Guardian, “It was the first time in ages that I've enjoyed any live performance without being annoyed by the people around me.” Nestruck’s statement sounds crazy, because he wasn’t at the Met. He was watching Rheingold on the giant screens in Times Square!

Specifically, Nestruck claims the unending cacophony of the Great White Way was somehow easier to dismiss from his attention than the noise of one nearby candy-unwrapping patron in an otherwise silent theater. A WQXR listener basically agreed, calling the same performance, seen at the open-air broadcast at Lincoln Center, “an experience of a lifetime.” I would have expected people to have been driven mad by the sounds of the nearby street and the fountain, to say nothing of the rain that night, but clearly it wasn’t so.

On the other hand, I couldn’t quiet the distractions in my own head while sitting in Avery Fisher Hall at the season-opening concert of the New York Philharmonic. Listening to Wynton Marsalis’s Swing Symphony (Symphony No. 3), I had the hardest time hearing what the Philharmonic and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra sounded like together, even though they were playing at the same time through most of the piece. Marsalis himself told WQXR (on our broadcast of the concert) that the idea of “swing” is doing something together. But my brain insisted on sorting out the jazz from the symphonic, the big band from the orchestra, and trying to identify the old sounds instead of hearing the new. I wish I’d been better able to listen to the “together” in Marsalis’s composition.

And then there was Opening Night at Carnegie Hall, with Nicolaus Harnoncourt, the Vienna Philharmonic, and pianist Lang Lang as the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1.  Lang Lang takes a lot of heat for some of his interpretive choices, and critics also point out his facial and other gestures at the keyboard. I noticed those looks and gestures, too, but what bothered me was that I used them, in part, as a basis for judging the performance. Was Lang Lang’s interpretation “moving” because he himself looked so moved while in the act, or was it “self-involved” because he made hand movements not strictly necessary to the act of pushing down a piano key to produce sound?  It’s outrageously unfair to judge a musical performance by the way the musician looks while performing. But I do it. I suspect lots of us do. But it’s like judging a painting based not on the finished canvas, but on how the artist holds his brushes.

To conclude this over-long post, it appears that the serious distractions to the enjoyment of a live performance don’t come from outside of ourselves – not if Kelly Nestruck and thousands of other people enjoyed Das Rheingold sitting outdoors in a rainy New York City night. And I can say with certainty that my biggest distractions are in my head! The good news is that the music we love is such a rich art that it’s definitely worth the effort of working to truly hear it.

Your thoughts on this topic are most welcome below – and I’d love to know: how do you deal with in-concert distractions?

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Jeff Spurgeon

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Comments [7]

concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

Some years back, I attended the screening of "Otello" starring Domingo and directed by Zefferelli. Some ladies in back of me were chatting it up. Particularly galling is that this was during the opening music of the storm at sea, I turned around and said "Shut Up". They did but the music was ruined by these two stupid broads.

Oct. 28 2010 10:14 AM

I don't attend too many concerts because I am so involved giving them; however, I have always been very tolerant of distractions because I view concerts as a social scene more than a library experience. As far as I'm concerned, distractions are part of the show. In addition, what people wear to concerts is often more of a distraction to me than the little noises they make.

Oct. 23 2010 02:39 PM
Harry from Brooklyn, NY

If you're determined to enjoy an opera for free in Times Square, your mind is set to tune out distractions and you can ignore panhandlers.

But if you've paid $150 or more for a seat in the house, you have the right to assume that the performance will not be interrupted by bizarre sounds from a cell phone.

It's all well and good for arts institutions to seek young patrons. The City Ballet, for instance, has been stressing the fact (which has long been true) that most of its dancers are in their 20's and devoted to the art. Today, several of them tweet regularly, even in mid-performance.

Will sexy photos and chatty curtain speeches, plus candid tweets, expand the company's audience? We shall see.

Oct. 18 2010 03:47 AM
Ken Thompson

Idiots With Cellphones are the bane of modern life. Until we start having snipers in theaters and concert halls, there is nothing to be done to stop the mindless and rude disruptions these idiots cause at events. (Cellphones and cameras must be checked before anyone can enter the courthouse. Now there is a concept!)

Oct. 17 2010 12:00 PM

Well Jeff, have you tried wearing ear plugs to block out any unwelcome distraction.(That might do the trick Champ)

Oct. 08 2010 02:38 PM
Michael Meltzer

When we go to a live concert, the beautiful tone quality, the directional enhancement of polyphonic writing, the physical "feel" of the sound itself is usually enough to command our complete attention to the music that interests us in the first place anyway.
The trouble with being in the music business (I was in two different branches for over 40 years) as you are, is that you wind up at concerts you otherwise wouldn't want to attend, because it is either required of you or it is politic to do so.
That's like wearing a pair of shoes a half-size too small, and all I can suggest is that patience is a virtue in which you can take personal pride. Sorry.

Oct. 08 2010 07:44 AM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

I don't know that you can ever be fully tolerant of distractions, but we need to live with them as best we can. As the performing arts tries to lure a wider and wider following, you are bound to get a healthy cross-section of attendees who think they are at a drive-in movie.

My immersion into the performance is so complete, that as long as the person next to me is not keeping time on my knee with a hammer, he doesn't exist.

Oct. 07 2010 03:18 PM

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