The other day I heard one of the most startling recordings of any musical or theatrical performance. It documented the premiere of Edgard Varese’s “Deserts,” a path-breaking composition for instrumental ensemble and electronics.
Shortly after the work began, the audience erupted in shouts and whistles that intermittently continued for 20 minutes, at times becoming so loud they drowned out the performance, which nonetheless proceeded to completion.
This took place in 1954 at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris, the scene of another famous demonstration during the debut of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring” more than 40 years earlier. To American ears, it seemed inconceivable that the decades in between had done so little to improve audience manners.
But neither display had much to do with manners. The French, and Europeans in general, know that just as applause is a ritual of approval, so is jeering a ritual of disapproval that continues to have an equal - and active - place in the behavior of an educated audience.
We could use such discrimination on this side of the Atlantic. The behavior of American audiences is oddly divided. During a program, we think nothing of coughing, crinkling, crunching, rattling, snoring or shuffling. But afterward, no matter the level of what we’ve witnessed, we invariably give positive tribute. That’s what custom dictates, and theater- or concert-goers readily comply - if it doesn’t condemn them to a longer line out of the parking lot.
Do we really like everything we see and hear? Of course not. Yet in public Americans almost always express polite satisfaction. And perhaps that’s because, after buying the tickets, hiring a baby-sitter, gassing up the car, driving downtown and paying for dinner, we feel the performance just has to be splendid.
But not all splendors are of the same degree. In concert halls, music that ends loudly and quickly has a way of building more gratitude than can be contained. Which is just the moment for a standing ovation, that overflow of feeling once prompted only by the highest levels of excellence.
How does it happen that Europeans resist such impulses, expressing dislike more readily? Simple. Centuries ago they invented a lot of what continues to be important culturally and are on intimate terms with it, so those who attend concerts and plays are more secure in their reactions. An active involvement with culture is important to them because it is their culture.
It’s a sense of personal affront that outrages the uncomprehending and self-important whenever anything artistic is at the root: At the premiere of “The Rite of Spring,” the Countess Rene de Pourtales rose to her feet, crying, “I am 60 years old and this is the first time anyone has dared to make fun of me!” Yet it’s forgotten there also were people at that performance who became vocal because they were deeply knowledgeable about classical ballet and loathed how “The Rite’s” primitive movements inverted it.
Those people mocked the mockers, first by calling for a doctor when pigeon-toed dancers trembled en masse, then by shouting for dentists as the same women propped tilted heads with the backs of their hands. The noise was so great no one could hear enough of “The Rite’s” music to judge it, but many judged the intentionally provocative choreography, showing no hesitation in confronting its creators.
That’s the spirit I’d like to find in the theaters and concert halls of contemporary America. I want to hear the snarl of an audience that uses its voice the way Italians do whenever opera singers give less than their all. And I long to see showboating conductors and stage directors when an educated audience, like the ones in Germany (particularly at Bayreuth), greets the final curtain with bark, whistle and catcall.