The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Reading during a live concert is rude and disrespectful — like knitting, texting or checking email. Don’t do it.

April 26, 2012
36 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

So there I was last Saturday afternoon, in the small and intimate Morphy Recital Hall listening to the three winners of the 27th annual Beethoven Sonata Competition – the Bagatelles also can be entered — at the University of Wisconsin School of Music.

Three talented students – one undergraduate and two graduate students – were playing three difficult and famous Beethoven sonatas. They had some slips, but each played very well with fluency and an understanding of the music.

Aelin Woo (below) played the dark and dramatic  Sonata in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2 “Tempest.”

Jonathan Thornton (below) played the Sonata in E Major, Op. 109, with its sublimely soulful theme-and-variations final movement.

And Sung Ho Yang played the mammoth “Hammerklavier” Sonata, in B-Flat Major, Op. 106, perhaps the Mount Everest of the piano repertoire because of its length and its gnarly fugue in the last movement.

Mind you, these were students — not seasoned or veteran performers. They needed all the focus, concentration and calm they could muster. And they needed attentiveness from the audience.

But they weren’t getting any help from one woman who sat right in front of me.

For most of the 90 minutes of actual playing, she carefully read an issue of The New Yorker Magazine, folding the pages and underlining passages with a ballpoint pen (below).

That shows good taste in reading.

But it also shows bad taste – very bad taste – in concert manners and etiquette. She should know better – and probably does.

Not only might she have distracted the performers who were close by on stage. She also clearly distracted several people in the audience sitting near her who commented to me—but not directly to her.

I understand their reticence. After all, I too did not talk directly to her, even though she was only a row in front of me.

For the same reason, you will see in the photo below that I did not show her face but just her companion — who also induced the rudeness and didn’t apparently say anything to her about the offensive behavior — looking at an ad in The New Yorker during intermission. And I did not try to get her name.

I am more interested in correcting or, better, preventing the behavior than in embarrassing the violator.

Now, this is not the first time such intrusive rudeness has caught the attention of The Ear.

Quite a while ago, I wrote a blog posting that was critical of a woman who sat in the front row of a concert and knitted. Then I did the same thing about people who checked e-mail and texted during a theater performance.

I think they should be kicked out – that is, politely but firmly asked to leave – unless they are willing to pay attention and be polite.

I think most readers agreed with me that such behavior is indeed rude and out-of-place.

If you go to the concert, you should listen to the music.

If you want to use music as background, stay home, put on a CD and knit or read your magazine.

And if you don’t want to go to a concert to hear the music, then stay home or go somewhere else.

Period.

But, with a few exceptions — such as the outdoors Opera in the Park, which is loud and asks audience members to text in donations, or a vocal or choral concert where you follow lyrics or text — you do not read books or magazines at a concert. It is rude to the performer and to the audience. It is also demeaning to yourself.

Even program notes should be read before or after the concert or during intermission. Reading program notes at the wrong time—when it is quiet during the performance or when you make a noise folding the page – is also rude.

My post about knitting drew a lot of reader comments, both pro and con, including comments about some special disorder or disability that makes people need to knit during a concert.

Sorry, I’m not buying that baloney. Just stay home.

Anyway, here are links to those posts about knitting and about texting during performances. Be sure to pay attention to the many comments about knitting:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=knitting

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2009/11/03/classical-music-etiquette-kick-texters-out-of-concerts-plays-movies/

And let me know what you think about reading magazines or books during a concert.

And what you think should be done?

The Ear wants to hear.


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