How to Cope with Concert Hall Distractions

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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?