Archive for February, 2010


Audience behaviour

Back from a lengthy session in Hong Kong during which I recoiled, yet again, at the grotesque habits of the Hong Kong audience. Things go from bad to worse and it’s got to the stage now that, if I wasn’t obliged to go, I’d give concerts there a miss.  There’s great music-making in every area of Hong Kong’s exciting cultural scene, and Edo De Waart has done fantastic things with the HKPO, but something drastic needs to be done to the audience.

Ringing phones, chatting, reading books, rustling sweet papers, noisy (and noisome) children.  They are all par for the course.  They’re so common it’s almost part of the furniture. Clandestine (and not so clandestine) love affairs go on all over the place, with gweilo arms draped gropingly across the backs of petite Asian belles wearing, from the back at least, just about nothing  at all and from the front revealing an ease of public access which the designers of the Cultural Centre themselves would have done well to emulate.  Weak bladders and noisy shoes go hand in hand (as it were) judging by the incessant procession of patrons caught short (always) during a quiet moment in the music and obliged to make a hasty retreat to the furthest possible exit.  All that is part of the landscape.  Hong Kongers can’t be expected to change their ways that drastically.

But for me the insufferable thing is the  Blackberrying and Emailing which goes on ceaselessly.  From every corner of the hall you see little blue screens flashing around as bored patrons (why the hell do they go if they only want to play with their pocket gadgets?) entertain themselves at a level Beethoven, Brahms or Bruckner could never hope to attain.  After all, what’s Mahler 7 got that can compare with an email from someone you haven’t seen for 30 minutest??  What magic can Respighi draw from The Pines of Rome that can compete with the up-to-the-minute stock-market reports coming in from the Argentine??  The level of selfishness shown by these people defies belief.  Of course, why would a financier have any interest or concern in the fact that data coming into and going out from his handheld is distorting the amplified signal being sent to those in the audience unfortunate enough to need to use a hearing aid?  Why would a businessman who believes himself to be successful want to know that his little electronic toy is totally destroying the listening pleasure of those who have been stupid enough to go to the concert to listen to music rather than marvel at his state-of-the-art gimmicks?

The last straw came during a concert on 5th Feb when the CHinese man in front of me spent the entire concert Blackberrying, despite the frantic efforts of his wife to get him to stop for a moment (it was his wife, I assume; the usual tartlettes would have been more impressed by his hardware).  He held his machine so high that I could easily read it.  He didn’t notice me, but I saw his screen clearly.  He was reviewing the CVs sent in by applicants for a job with a major Hong Kong company.  Thanks to him I know the background and details of five young hopefuls who were being considered for an interview.  How I was tempted to contact one of them and suggest they spend the whole of the interview texting their friends.  What would Gormless-with-the-Gadget say about that?  I know.  He’d not even consider the applicant, and would probably tell his equally gormless friends that the candidate was “rude”.  I did write to the Personnel Director of the company and complain and, of course, I have received no response, but there again I expect that nobody sees the problem.  You can be rude to musicians and those foolish enough to enjoy music, but you must not be rude to those who earn mighty salaries in the financial and commercial institutions which our misguided culture labels “powerhouses” .  When I was a boy, if you failed all your exams you went into banking; if you passed them you went and did something more worthwhile.  I’m afraid I have yet to grow out of that mentality.

And what do the authorities at the Cultural Centre do to curb such disturbing antics?  They employ a harem of harried hags who hurry hither and thither around the auditorium as the doors shut and lights dim, wearing the noisiest heels known to womankind and flashing their torch lights officiously at any late-comer (and a majority of any Hong KOng audience is made up of late-comers) to ensure that he or she sits in the correct seat, even where that seat is in the very middle of the second row from the front.  Even when the performance is underway, they will hurry around flashing their torches and muttering loud tut-tuts seemingly at random.  I’ve never seen one of them do anything other than disturb a concert.  Does anyone give them any training?  LAst week, one of them forgot to close the door beside the organ and spent the first few minutes of the concert in full view silhouetted against the light fiddling with the bolt.

Singapore audiences certainly used to be pretty bad, and there was a fantastic website that reviewed every concert with an indicator to the distraction caused by the audience.  It worked to an extent, although late-comers are still a big problem.  LAst week, for example, I gave the pre-concert talk at the Esplanade library, and was advised – when only two people showed up –  that as the audience always come late we’d best start five minutes after the advertised time (which rather buggered up my carefully-timed 30 minute session).  True, the audience grew to around 40 and people were still coming in even as I finished.  They didn’t care; after all why bother to put yourself out when you are only dealing with music?   Would any of them dream of turning up over half-an-hour late for a prearranged meeting with their bank manager?  I rather think not.

And KL concert audiences have a culture so unique it almost defies comment.  I long ago realised that KL audiences go to be seen not to see.  I laugh with ill-disguised mirth at the odd assortment of cocktail dresses and tiny black numbers which, teetering in on high heels over the state-of-the-art wooden floor, draw attention to themselves on entry to the hall.  They, too, sit with their phones on busily texting (I assume contacting their clients for later in the evening down at the Beach Club) ; but when you look like that, you wouldn’t know any better, so we can’t complain.  At least those dopey dreamgirls have put in the effort to look presentable.  In other areas the KL people seem to have gone bonkers over the Dress Code.  Malaysians hate being told what to do, even when it is for their own good, and when the Dress Code was introduced it was intended to offer guidance to an audience who had no previous experience in attending classical music concerts.  But it became a big issue with people who wanted to object for the sake of objecting.  TAke this, from one disgruntled member of the audience turned away for wearing a vest and slippers;  “I could go into a concert in London dressed like this.  Why can’t I go into one in my own country?”  If he had ever gone to a LOndon concert dressed thus, he would have been carried out on  a stretcher before the first movement was over, suffering from hypothermia.  Take the complaint I heard a few weeks ago, when a very angry young man adorned in a designer tee with designer jeans railed at the door-steward for not allowing him in without a jacket;  “Would you belive, lah?  No jackets to fit in your so-called wardrobe-lah?”  If poseur was so keen on being there, why didn’t he invest in a jacket of his own rather than rely on the DFP staff to find him one at the last minute?  Would he go to the casinos of Genting, Sentosa or Macau dressed thus?  The lure of big money would soon make him forget the “oppressive” rules imposed on dress.  Once again, when it comes to music, the perception is that we must do what we want, but in any other walk of life, we accept the rules governing basic etiquette.

When is music going to stand up for itself and say “enough is enough; if you don’t want to play by our rules we won’t let you share our product?”  The answer is, of course, never. THose in the music management business are too obsessed with keeping everyone happy that they forget the true value of what it is they are offering to the public, and that tendency for music management (And a lot of musicians too) to roll over and let everyone walk over only undermines their place in the public esteem.

February 2010