Royal Philharmonic Society Lecture 2010: Alex Ross

Well, there I was: poised in row G of the stalls at the Wigmore Hall, moleskin notebook in hand, Glyndebourne souvenir pen hovering over the acid-free paper, primed to record thoughts and gems from the Royal Philharmonic Society lecture.  I can’t really claim to have written anything of any substance.

Not that it wasn’t entertaining.  Far from it.  It’s just that it wasn’t what I was expecting from my first trip to a RPS Lecture.   Ross was certainly engaging, and in less august surroundings, and with the benefit of a more reliable sound system, it would have been enjoyable.  However, in this setting I expected something more commanding, more profound.  His delivery took a little adjusting to, in the manner of Robert Peston, and the Macbook-delivered sound clips were only good for as long as they worked.  Overall, whilst it was diverting, it just didn’t leave me with very much to ponder.

The basic point at issue seemed to be whether to applaud spontaneously mid-symphony if the feeling so grips you.  That was an intro into a broader debate about how to ‘reinvent’ the classical concert, but having said that, the debate really didn’t get that much broader.  By means of some very interesting examples, and a comprehensive historical tour through concert audience practice, Ross highlighted how the ‘sshhh’ mentality is a relatively recent development.  The examples were interesting, including Mozart’s calculated attempt to spur his audience to applause during the Paris symphony fourth movement, and Wagner’s strictures on audience noise which backfired on him when he bravo’d the Flower Maidens, only to be hissed by his acolytes.  It seems to me, though, that there are many other subjects more worthy of exploration than this.  I know there is a debate about whether the reverence of the concert experience is off-putting for ‘new audiences’, but sorry, it just doesn’t get me too worked up.

So, a reasonably entertaining evening but not one that is likely to stay with me for too long.  Ross has some impressive things to say, undoubtedly:  I just don’t think he was saying any of them at the Wigmore Hall last Monday.

And by way of my response to his thesis, I would actually have rather heard a discourse on how the ‘new audience’ can be encouraged into the opera house or concert hall without disrupting the experience for the rest of us for whom this is our principal interest.  I’m rather fed up of sitting next to bored, shuffly, talkative, jangly ‘newcomers’ whose disinterest in itself becomes a distraction.  Now that would have got me fired up.

The full text is on the Royal Philharmonic Society website (pdf link).

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