Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

The Old (In Fact, Distinctly Young) Mid-Symphony Cough

September 3rd, 2010 · 3 Comments

I grew up attending orchestral concerts. My mom is a musician/music professor/teacher, and my sister is the same. So are 2 of my grandparents. My mom and dad met because of music. As a result,  I’ve gone to more concerts, willingly and unwillingly, than I can count. I was quite excited to attend the BBC Proms series at the Royal Albert Hall. The performance featured the Czech Philharmonic playing a bit of Dvoråk and Janacek, and highlighted pianist Sir John Eliot Garder on the Grieg. Oh yes, and there were a couple encore pieces… what?

The Philharmonic and Gardner both played extra pieces, not listed on the program. After their wonderful display, and in response to raucous, and deserved applause, both Gardner and the orchestra played encores. The addition of pieces to a concerts’ repertoire is a foreign idea to American symphonies and formal concerts, where I’ve experienced a much stricter and reserved atmosphere. However the encore pieces were not the only differences between the Proms and American symphonic concerts.

Another major difference were the surprise coughing fits that infected the crowd in between movements of the symphonies/concertos. During these breaks at American concerts, the crowd is silent, waiting for the next movement to begin. while they contemplate the last bit, or potentially chuckle at another onlooker who is a concert rookie and actually clapped, a symphonic gaffe. However the Brits seem to either hold in all their coughs (and there are quite a few) or they are trying to subtly acknowledge that yes, that was quite good, please continue and keep up the good work! There is apparently a growing movement to actually clap between the movements, which can be read about further here and here. Perhaps the coughing was in fact an anti-clapping movement, as those with sudden bouts of whooping cough, bronchitis, or emphysema sought to defeat the class-less onlookers. Anyway, this whole thing puzzles me, but it is certainly not mirrored in American concerts.

Other disparities between the two cultures’ concerts include the “heave…ho” chant howled by onlookers as the stage crew moved the piano, the baseball-game-esque servers with iced buckets of beer parading the lower levels during intermission, the area for standing-crowd-only right in front of the stage, the incredibly animated movements of both the conductor, soloist, and orchestral members, and the heavy drinking of many concert-goers evidenced by the presence of flasks, beers, martinis, etc.

All of the aforementioned differences provided for a much more relaxed atmosphere, which  made the concert ultimately more enjoyable. This phenomenon explains the last, and in my opinion awesome, difference: the overall number of attendees, but specifically the amount of younger members of the audience, was much higher than I have seen at American concerts (of symphonies and other variants of classical music). In short, the place was packed, and there a fair amount of young concert-goers, not all of which were with their parents. This increase in younger generations attending the concert is also reflected in the museums, portrait galleries, and theatre shows we’ve attended.

I can think of several reasons for this. First, the museums/shows/concerts in London are either free, or are still much cheaper than their American counterparts. Young adults are infamously cash-strung, and the steeper prices of admission to American centers of cosmopolitanism, intellectualism, etc. (including college) may deter attendance. Secondly, London’s examples of these cultural experiences are much more enjoyable. Most museums feature fun, creative and interactive displays/games/things-that-help-you-learn. Though for the concert these features were more subtle, like the exaggerated movements and poses of Gardner (frequently resembling Michael Jackson in Thriller) or the incessant coughing (at least, I did/would have enjoyed this time-to-make-noise period), they certainly made the experience more entertaining. Lastly, the relaxed atmosphere makes it more acceptable for younger people to attend these concerts/museums/etc. The museums and specifically the concert, are clearly not only for stuffy upper-echelons of society and rich old folks, but for all interested citizens.

The concerts, and theaters, museums, etc. draw young people to them. I would like to see America follow suit.

Tags: 2010 ChristopherB