Who Gets to Decide What’s Fun in Live Classical Music? You Do.

Above: Cellist Guy Fishman and harpsichordist Ian Watson perform at New York’s Poisson Rouge

In the wake of the now-viral story about the Messiah crowd surfing incident at Britain’s 2013 Bristol Proms, I’d like to talk a little bit about fun.

First, the incident in question: At the Messiah performance, Tom Morris, artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, invited the audience to bring beer into a “mosh pit” area in front of the stage and told them to “clap or whoop when you like.” One audience member – the self-described “scientist, artist & cultural theorist” David R. Glowacki – went perhaps a bit too far when he attempted to crowd surf during the performance – at least the attempt didn’t win him any friends: other concert-goers threw him out of the auditorium. This at a festival designed to eliminate stuffiness from live classical music.

Much has been written in recent years about how best to package classical music for audiences that are today far more casual than those of previous generations. People these days want to have fun during their down time. And it seems that fun is really the phenomenon behind the ongoing quest to put live performances of classical music in (literally) outside-the-box venues: bars, subway stations, even public parking garages.

Our culture has a seemingly insatiable appetite for fun. To be sure, we all need regular doses of fun. Without it, our vivacious luster becomes buried beneath a patina of the mundane. Fun in and of itself is not the problem, and classical music can pair as well with fun as anything else can.

Still, it is possible to go a bit too far in our quest for fun. So what are some things that actually are fun, and what are some things that might seem like fun but that end up being … not so much? Fun at a classical music concert could be, say, showing up at a laid-back venue, meeting some friends there, having a nosh and listening to some talented musicians play good music. Maybe the artists could structure their performance in “sets” of works, with leisurely intermissions in between, during which you and your friends could grab another nosh and Facebook and/or live tweet about having a great time at a good concert.

Fun at a live classical music performance could also look like a recent concert of the Seattle Symphony, during which the guest artist, Sir Mix-a-Lot, invited “a couple of ladies” to come up on stage and dance. And so they did. More than a couple. And the crowd loved it, because dancing onstage with the Seattle Symphony and Sir Mix-a-Lot was, yes, something out of the ordinary, but it was also a true coming together of performers and audience, a removing of the proscenium wall that has for so long distanced performing artists from the very people with whom they most need to cozy up: the people who view them.

As a final example, fun at a live performance of classical music could even look like quality time with the family: taking the kids to a more or less traditional concert at a concert hall where a separate room as been adapted to allow kids safely inconspicuously to move to the music they hear the musicians performing. And yes, you can Facebook and live tweet the video and photos you shoot of your kids dancing around to the music, too.

In all of these examples, a traditional concert is transformed into a different kind of concert experience that brings people together for good times and good music. Throw in a dash of performance comedy of the Victor Borge (or Igudesman and Joo) variety and you’ve got a fun concert.

But even though all of these examples stretch traditional expectations for a classical music concert, they are also all appropriate to the matter at hand, which is still a concert of classical music.

One question is, how far can we stretch the traditional classical music concert to allow for different, or even unique, kinds of musical experiences? Another question is, how much do we need to?

The recent crowd surfing incident at the Bristol Proms performance of Handel’s Messiah might suggest the answer to this question. It’s not that crowd surfing is not fun. I’ve never done it, but I’m sure it could be a hoot. However, clearly the other members of the audience – those who would, it seems, be surfed on – weren’t ready in any sense for the experience and, in the end, seriously didn’t go for it. I guess you could say that crowd surfing at a concert of Handel’s music just wasn’t fun for them, though – who knows? – maybe those folks would be big crowd surfers at a different performance, maybe even a different classical music performance designed to encourage and accommodate crowd surfing.

So, in short, the audience – you yourself – gets to decide what you think is fun at live performances of classical music (and, of course, elsewhere). And according to recent reports, it seems that string quartet concerts in bars is fun, unexpected crowd surfing to Handel’s Messiah is not. You decide how far we can stretch the limits of the classical concert experience. if it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work for the art form.

And do we need to do all this pushing the envelope in the first place? I would argue that pushing the limits is in general good policy for any art form. For how else will we learn what works for you, the audience, and what doesn’t?

What do you think about pushing the limits at live performances of classical music?

Read more:

Crowd Surfer Carried away by Handel Thrown out of Alternative Proms (Independent)

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