Magazine article The Spectator

Acts of Collective Rudeness

Magazine article The Spectator

Acts of Collective Rudeness

Article excerpt

Why are London audiences the best in the world? And why are those in New York the worst? It is a question worth pondering as some Manhattan critics look fondly across the Atlantic, and wonder whether it is worth trying to replicate the Proms in some form in their parish. Well, they can try but nobody should be surprised if the idea comes a cropper. The first requirement is to persuade listeners to show more interest in the music than in themselves; in New York, that group often amounts to no more than a quorum. Any music-lover or theatre-goer returns to England from that frantic, intoxicating city anxious to get back to life among like-minded people, so appalling are the standards of public behaviour on the other side of the pond.

In the course of a recent week it was possible to catch two big nights, Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan Opera and Tristan and Isolde at Covent Garden. The Met, living up to its reputation as a swankers' paradise, buzzed all night long with chit-chat, and the chatterers didn't allow anything so trivial as the music to get in the way. It isn't actually as great a house as it likes to pretend, being far too big, and having the production values of an English rep circa 1950, but it deserves a good deal better than its dimmer patrons are willing to offer.

At Covent Garden, meanwhile, the first-nighters made barely a squeak throughout four and a half hours of Wagner. When the curtain fell at the end of the third act it was to total silence. At the Met the applause would have drowned out the last bars, ruining the musical and dramatic effect of everything that had gone before.

Nor is Carnegie Hall much better. Though it promotes itself as the hall `where the world listens' it might more properly be described as the place where the world listens to New Yorkers coughing, dropping programmes, unwrapping sweet papers, shelling coins and talking loudly to one another. Yet, for all their talking, three words that do not feature in their vocabulary are 'please' and `thank you'.

When, earlier this month, the Cleveland Orchestra opened the new season there with the Requiem of Hans Werner Henze, a bold adventure, they were playing with fire. Sure enough, as row upon row of grim-faced punters realised this music was not as easy on the ear as, say, Haydn, they departed in their dozens without so much as a by-your-leave. Even the New York Times reviewer felt obliged to record this act of collective rudeness.

At such moments it is pleasing to recall the attentiveness of London audiences, and smile at the suggestion that New York could stage anything as big-hearted as the Proms. When the Berlin Philharmonic visited the Albert Hall this year with Bernard Haitink their performance of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony could not fail to be enhanced by the maturity of the listeners. In a hall that holds 6,000 people not a mouse stirred.

This contrast is not lost on the musicians. Kurt Masur, who leaves the music director's post at the New York Philharmonic next summer, walked off the podium at Avery Fisher Hall last year to register his disgust at the audience's restlessness. When the orchestra came to London this year Masur made a point of commending the Barbican audience at the end of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, as if to tell the musicians: `There, that's how a proper audience behaves.'

There comes a time when you have to confront the most persistent noise-makers, and that is what I did at Alice Tully Hall earlier this year during a recital by the Emerson Quartet, who were embarking on a Shostakovich cycle. A man in the row behind, who was clearly under the impression that Shostakovich had composed his second quartet for four instruments `and unidentified hacker', coughed and spluttered throughout the piece in a manner that, even by local standards, was shockingly loud. …

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