Leonard Slatkin: Why I Invited Listeners to Snap Photos During a Concert

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Whip out your cell phone and start photographing at a sporting event and nobody will notice – other fans are probably snapping photos anyway. But try that at a symphony concert and you'll be glared at – unless you're at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Conductor Leonard Slatkin told WQXR how he surprised patrons during the Detroit Symphony's six-date South Florida tour this week by inviting them to take photos and videos of the performances on their phones, and to post them on the Internet.

"Orchestras go on tour, you play your concert, you play your encore, you come and go and you leave,” Slatkin said in a phone interview from the Arlene Arsht Center in Miami. “But I wanted to do something that made the audience feel more connected to the stage and more included in the performances.

“So we finished on Tuesday night playing Bolero, and then on Wednesday, Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, and I simply turned to them and I said, 'maybe some of you might enjoy sending greetings from sunny and warm Florida to all of you people suffering in the 11 degrees that it was at the time [in Detroit]. Why don’t you do something you haven’t heard before in the concert hall: turn on your phones now."

The DSO estimates that 15 to 20 percent of the audience took Slatkin up on his offer to get a digital souvenir during the encores. The orchestra has been publishing some photos of its tour on its social media channels, including a Tumblr blog and an Instagram feed.

Slatkin says the photography invitation arose partly from the notion that concert halls can set an unwelcoming tone by issuing too many rules. "That’s starting to disturb me a lot,” he said. “People come into a concert hall, they sit down, and the so-called Voice of God comes on and tells them what not to do: Don’t have your phones on, don’t take pictures, don’t do that. Now, of course, we shouldn’t do those things. But is it really right to start off a program telling people what not to do?"

He added that Florida retirees made an ideal test audience for in-house photography, being mindful to not take the invitation too far by talking on the phone or making other noises.

Digital interactivity in concerts is not entirely new. Kansas City Opera invited audiences to live Tweet a performance of H.M.S. Pinafore in 2009. The orchestras of San Francisco, Indianapolis and Cincinnati have experimented with Tweet Seat sections in their halls, often in a separate area to avoid disrupting non-tweeting patrons. Still, the practice has been a flashpoint for controversy, with a few artists including pianist Krystian Zimerman halting their concerts over audience shutterbugs. Most New York venues including Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center have not embraced the Tweet Seat trend.

"You’re never going to stop it, so why not at least control it,” said Slatkin of the urge to reach for one's phone. “I think we have to start giving audiences a little more credit. Otherwise, we’re going to just live in a more totalitarian society."

What do you think of photography during concerts? Please leave your comments below.

Slatkin Photo: Donald Dietz/DSO. Below photo by Jenn Scott: