A Second Audience With Rob Pennock

Written by: Rob Pennock

Having looked at the behavioural patterns of the ‘standard’ audience for music, I thought it would now be interesting to look at the conversations one can hear and the assumptions and prejudices that surround such a tête-à-tête. As with Part One I have split the article into sections: ‘Introduction’, ‘Verbosity and Irrationality’, and ‘Solutions’.


How anyone reacts to the ideas of others is massively subjective, so while coughers, mobile-phone louts and the like may excite universal condemnation, it is by no means certain that conversations will! So as with the first article I hope that readers will read, digest and then indulge in what may be painful yet fruitful soul-searching and self-analysis before they say anything at all at a concert.

Verbosity and Irrationality

The moment you enter the doors of a concert hall you will hear – while fighting your way through the sprawling masses – some interesting snatches of conversation: ‘Yes, I heard her during the Lower Schlesswig Bratwurst Festival – you know the one Richter made famous when he played Berg by candlelight on a Yamaha upright in a barn – and she was divine’. Or, ‘did you hear the CD? Oh, what mastery, what command; surely Callas couldn’t have done better!’

This is quite harmless, but unfortunately these pronouncements are often delivered in earnest sotto voce oracular tones that indicate that the speakers are taking themselves rather too seriously. I always have a sneaking suspicion that the narrator hasn’t been anywhere near the named location. However, the wait for tickets can be reasonably entertaining. People will occasionally mention music, but often it’s the usual sorry tales of office conflict and gossip that dominate. Or the classic, ‘Oh that’s Charlie over there; haven’t seen him since Pollini six months ago. I hear he lost his job after finding his partner in bed with his sister making love to the Liebestod. I wonder if we should wave or … too late he’s seen us.’

In the first article I mentioned those who effortlessly clog up the foyer and staircases. While these creatures come in all shapes, sizes and ages there is one particular variety that is common – the 50-year-plus businessman dressed in a suit with spouse or mistress in tow. The staircase conversations here are delicious. ‘Do you remember Peter Wilkins from the fourth floor, or was he before your time? He and his delightful wife – whose name escapes me – were big fans of Sir Thomas – Tommy as I used to call him. You know, he thought Elgar was brass-band music. Bloody right too!’ This will elicit various responses such as ‘Oh you are terrible, dear’. Or ‘Oh yes, Tommy was marvellous; pity he never did Mahler, as my friend who was twelfth horn in the Royal Phil told me…’. And at every exclamation mark, pause or peal of laughter the entire group will grind to a halt.

No doubt similar conversations take place over a pre-concert drink. I tend to arrive just in time to collect the ticket – once in the auditorium you can continue to hear some memorable exchanges. I can cope with people who rarely go to concerts and may not be familiar with the music. They hunter on about how they hope it will sound like some advert or an item from the Olympic Games’ opening ceremony – but those who give an impression of Donald Tovey on a bad day are cringe-making. Some poor sod will be sat with them and have to endure the likes of, ‘I know you don’t read music, but just listen to the bass figure in the second movement: it’s particularly striking from six before G onwards. Although I gather that (insert any artists’ name) does sometimes opt for a flattened fifth after the big climax, thus – for me – destroying the whole harmonic logic of the sixteen-bar paragraph’. Or, ‘of course you are familiar with the performing history of the work, but on disc I really must point you towards Munch in 1957, Mravinsky in 1965 and the massively under-rated Slober-Must with the Peru Academy Orchestra, quite possibly the best of the lot, and only known to the cognoscenti.’

Of course, there are the non-music discussions. Recently I was privileged to be sat in front of a man and women who had a seemingly-endless chat about words beginning with ‘con’ and then moved on to debate as to whether the sign on the stage was actually a warning about mobile phones or an advertisement for the Red Cross. Ho hum.

Nor must one forget the whispered conversations between movements or songs. These are usually of two varieties, the first being ‘I’ve lost track which piece is next and where are we?’. The second is usually to do with quality: ‘Oh that was marvellous, just like the advert’. Rather more entertainingly, a man at the Queen Elizabeth Hall whispered to his boyfriend – they were holding hands in the slow movement – ‘That was f***ing awful!’

The between-works banter can be captivating; but total irrationality begins to creep insidiously in, especially when there is some ‘mega-star’ on stage. Some years ago I went to the Barbican Hall to hear a celebrated conductor and diva murder “Nuits d’été”. At the end I was searching my bag for a pistol while the rest of audience were screaming and shouting for more. At the Wigmore Hall I heard a celebrated pianist plod a slow and sentimental path through the second set of Schubert’s Impromptus. While at the Royal Festival Hall I heard a ‘wunderkind’ pianist invest a series of works with mind-numbing virtuosity while being vacuous in the intellectual and emotional departments. In both cases the audience went reptile.

This strangely zombie-like behaviour leads us directly into the interval where those who aren’t desperately trying to retrieve messages from their phone will have the chance to discuss the spectacle to date over a quiet drink or choc-ice – always assuming they can get served or find a seat. Here the conversations seem to have little to do with what people have heard, and are based on broad generalisations. It’s the usual, ‘Oh isn’t she/he wonderful. What phrasing! What power! Isn’t he/she such a dear’. In other words, like the great diva at the Barbican, they can have annihilated some sublime music but the listeners’ ears are closed, their critical faculties have completely deserted them.

The situation gets worse if the performer is reasonably young, drop-dead gorgeous or near to death through illness or age – and if you combine any two, as with Lipatti, then there is no chance of any objectivity. Period! There is a celebrated baritone who has got the lot: a superb body, handsome face, a great voice and exceptional interpretative abilities. As a result of this combination of talents it is obvious that only heterosexual males will be able to engage their critical faculties when hearing and seeing the guy.

So we have interval conversations that require a subtext to fully unveil their meaning. If you see men or women shifting from foot to foot, fingering their glass, talking a little too quickly and looking abstractedly into the far distance, then you can usually assume that they, at the very least, fancy the artist. Thus anything they say needs to be viewed with some suspicion – their idol could sing “Winterreise” stood on their head dressed as a clown and they would think it was a wonderful new interpretative slant. An almost equally doughy-eyed group is surrogate parents, who talk about performers aged up to about forty who are reasonably attractive as though they are their offspring. I suppose if your sprog has just been arrested for smuggling endangered species out of Guatemala or married a Serbian punk-rocker, then the prospect of replacing it with a cuddly little concert-artist is appealing.

Then we have age, and here we have to divide performers into groups – singers, conductors and instrumentalists. With singers there are always huge numbers who continue way past their sell-by date. The voice might be threadbare, wobbly and only cover half an octave, but they go ever on, egged on by audiences. Here interval conversations will concentrate on, ‘I know the voice isn’t quite what it was, but the words and emotion, what depth, what insight, what commitment!’

Instrumentalists are slightly different in that they can usually go on for a lot longer. But a geriatric pianist may have made Schubert sound atonal because of the number of wrong notes and still the audience will shout and scream and the interval remarks will be the same as for the ageing singer.

Conductors of course don’t depend on their voice or other appendages and can generally carry on until death or senility intervenes. But after about 75 they will generally give one fine or great performance in about ten, but this won’t stop the usual mass-hysteria. My first experience of this phenomenon was when I was in my early teens and heard Otto Klemperer take many hours over Bach’s “St Matthew Passion”; it was truly dreadful, but in the interval there was a torrent of dewy-eyed reminiscence about his continuing spirituality and majesty.

Then we have the opera-house groupies. I was 20 when I first went to see “Tosca” (at Covent Garden and including Plácido Domingo in the cast). My well-heeled partner bought us tickets in the Grand Tier at a time when everyone wore ‘penguin suits’ in such hallowed environs. During the first interval we chatted to a group of opera ‘buffs’, one of which informed everyone how wonderful Björling had been in the role in 1962. Since Björling died in 1960, it must have been quite remarkable. I ventured to suggest that he had got the wrong year; this led to a deathly silence and pursed lips. The rest of the discussion consisted of various individuals making dubious pronouncements about singers and productions and everyone responding, ‘Oh yes, so true.’

Rather more distressingly with the purchase of 90 per cent of the tickets at most ‘prestige’ opera houses by multi-nationals you have to put up with the relevance of the production to the Futures market, complaints about the temperature of the house champagne or ‘outraged’ comments about audience members wearing jeans. In a way I suppose there is some excuse: most of these freeloaders are only there for the kudos and to meet with clients, so the music is of little interest.


Clearly in order to change perceptions you would need to educate the audience. Since most are quite happy to go along with what the hype tells them about new artists, or allow their libido to take over, then I doubt if there would be many takers for Audience night-classes at a local college.

However, I would be in favour of utilising the chip-inserts I advocated in the first article. Here you would need to have a voting system, people would have hand-held counters and if prior to the concert or at any break in the proceedings more than six people pressed the ‘execute ‘ button the offender would be rendered quite literally speechless for, say, two hours.

On a rather more contentious note, concert programme-notes could carry an artist health warning, saying something along the lines of, ‘This singer is somewhat old and may be suffering from shortness of breath, bad intonation and wobble’. Then of course there is the good old-fashioned interjection: just tell anyone talking nonsense to move away, speak in a whisper, or shut up. Failing that, hit them!

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