No Applause Please–This is Serious

31 October 2012

To many classical musicians, the words ‘crossover artist’ invoke an involuntary cringe, palpitations, and a carefully suppressed financial jealousy, usually expressed with a variation on the phrase ‘that’s not real music’. The likes of André Rieu and Josh Groban are seen to have sold out, placing money before musical integrity, promoting the commodification of art, and thus leading the ‘highbrow’ cultural world towards inevitable apocalypse.

As a classical musician myself, I was somewhat sceptical when asked to sing as part of a small backing choir at a concert for the English crossover tenor Russell Watson earlier this year. I’d heard his name, but not his new album La Voce, and was bracing myself for a few spectacularly cheesy hours of ‘favourites’. Cynicism melted slowly into enthusiasm throughout the rehearsal—it became apparent that there was to be a smoke machine and starry backdrop, in addition to some borderline-ridiculous orchestra swells, and a conductor who refused to wear shoes during the performance. It was everything a ‘serious’ classical concert is not. Amplification has a giddying effect in the classical world, and our chorus contributions to Russell’s Phantom of the Opera medley and excerpts from film scores were not our usual cup of choral tea (which tends to be steeped strongly in Tudor and Renaissance polyphony, usually for a sombre occasion).

If I was unprepared for the music, I was most certainly unprepared for the audience. The overwhelming majority comprised women over the age of sixty-five and their husbands, who seemed, initially at least, to be there rather against their will. Having endured countless classical performances with a similar demographic, I was hardly expecting women to scream “WELOVE YOU RUSSELL!” as he made his way through the aisles to touch hands with adoring fans between songs. In their enthusiasm, women clambered over one another to reach him with violence hitherto seen only as a life-threatening symptom of Bieber Fever.

The whole unfamiliar experience made me think of an article published early this year in the UK’s The Independent, in which acclaimed baritone Sir Thomas Allen attacked the “fake popularisation” of “lowbrow” classical music by crossover artists who present themselves as opera singers, having “never sung an opera in their lives”. It would be easier to disregard this blatant snobbery as a wrong-side-of-the-bed scenario were it not for the fact that in 2002 Allen made a similar speech, damning the posing of Royal Philharmonic Society musicians in wet T-shirts in the interest of attaining mass appeal. He remarked: “The idea of a wet T-shirted quartet where once was Amadeus has me reaching for the sea-sick pills.”

Unfortunately, Allen’s thoughts are reflective of a misguided attitude manifest in the wider classical community—that classical music is better than other music; that classical musicians are more skilled than those of other genres; and that classical music is serious music.

These attitudes are indicative only of pretence and insecurity. Those listening to and attending the concerts of crossover artists either a) know they’re not seeing the equivalent of an Opera Australia production, because they’re informed, interested, and simply enjoy the experience, or b) don’t care. And what’s really so wrong with that? As I learned, we can’t really compare a Russell Watson Super Mega Stage Arena Spectacular Extravaganza to a piano recital. The two are so completely removed from each other. They aren’t intended for the same audiences, and neither are they promoting cruel trickery or pretending to be something they’re not. It seems that people are losing sight of what music is—entertainment, to be enjoyed.

It’s not just the musicians, though. As someone who frequently attends and performs in classical concerts, I constantly feel let down by the audience. There is a tradition in the classical world—the No Applause rule, which stipulates that one should not clap between the movements of a symphony, concerto, or other multi-movement work. First-year music students, who like to show off how seriously musical they are, take up this tradition with particular enthusiasm. But of course, like most traditions, it’s actually a fairly recent addition to social convention. People used to shout at the singers (and each other) during Verdi’s opera premieres in Italy, and it was not uncommon to leave a performance having had an excellent catch up with your friend from down the road, and not listened to a single moment of the opera. Similarly, it was usual to demand multiple encores of famous arias mid-performance, despite the disruption to narrative flow. People clapped furiously between movements until Wagner (among others) persuaded his audiences into silence and darkness, so that they might appreciate the full emotional value of his artistic endeavours.

I was recently at a stunning performance given by the Czech Philharmonic in Melbourne, and was greatly amused by the audience. A smattering of uninhibited applause punctuated the silence in natural response to the first movement, while self-conscious abstention followed the second, as people realised they’d broken a key rule of concert etiquette. In contrast, it was wonderful to see the audience at Russell’s concert reacting with such alarming vigour. Their response to the music (and his handsome good looks) was instinctual and honest. If only classical audiences could show how they feel about music that excites, moves and inspires them. I’m not suggesting that we should talk our way through operas, nor that clapping should be compulsory or that we should scramble over Hamer Hall’s newly refurbished orange chairs to touch the artists, but that our reaction to the live performance of music should reflect how we feel about it. Some movements cry out for wild, enthusiastic applause only to be met with silence. Our own social codes and impositions are inhibiting the pleasure with which we receive classical music, and no doubt these pretentious rules are contributing greatly to its decline.

So perhaps the work of crossover artists is more about the spectacle than historically informed performance practice. Perhaps they have never sung an opera in their lives. Perhaps they earn more money for fewer hours in the practice room. But perhaps we can take a few pointers from the ‘plebs’ and show our enjoyment for the music we so ardently profess to like. Besides, I’m entirely certain that Mozart would have jumped at the idea of a wet T-shirted quartet.

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