Spot the difference

Oliver Condy tries to figure out why audience reactions vary so much from venue to venue, and country to country

Ever wondered why some audiences go wild at concerts while others don’t do much more than clap in the right places? Me too. I’ve been meaning to conduct some sort of audience study for a while now – I know: bear with me – to try to figure out why a Finnish audience (quiet but extended ripples of appreciation) is so different to a New York one (short, excited standing ovations).
 
How do international soloists cope with a warm reception in, say, Milan and a frosty one in Berlin, when the performance has been just as thrilling and exciting? And why are opera audiences so different to those in concert halls? So many questions and probably not many answers – and the answers are by no means purely cultural ones.
 
To be sure, though, audiences will, to some extent, bring their native cultural behaviour to venues – think of the outspoken Italians and then picture La Scala; the reserved Japanese and Tokyo’s Suntory Hall; the polite (or so we like to think) English and London’s Wigmore Hall… I’ve sat through some pretty terrible operatic performances in my short time, but I’ve never heard anyone being booed – except after poor Anja Silja’s appearance at Paris’s Bastille Opera in Poulenc’s Carmélites a few years back. I know that sort of thing goes on in Italy, but that’s down to a peculiar type of jealousy, I’ve always thought.
 
The answers to some of my questions, however, have as much to do with the heady combination of venue, artist and repertoire and, crucially, timing. While you’re never going to get the Wigmore Hall lot dancing in the aisles, you’ll see them a good deal more awake during an evening Romantic piano recital than you will a Lieder lunchtime series. Barenboim’s Beethoven Sonata cycle at the Royal Festival Hall in London last year, meanwhile, produced the liveliest reaction I’ve yet seen at a piano recital: cheering, standing, wolf-whistling… Back in Bristol, one of the finest Mozart recitals I’ve heard in years – by Christian Blackshaw – was met last month with dutiful applause bordering on the passive. Had the two soloists exchanged venue and city, I imagine the responses would have been very different.
 
To be clear, I’m not advocating wolf-whistling, but I’ve never heard a ‘bravo’ at an organ recital (which isn’t as fatuous a comment as it seems – have you ever seen someone play some flashy Dupré?). I have, however, heard plenty of them levelled at ok-ish singers after ok-ish operas. That’s probably just the old guard keeping it the way it should be… I like to think of myself as an opera-liker, if not paid up -lover, but have, up until now, resisted the temptation to yell at the stage. I managed a ‘hooray’ once after Joyce DiDonato’s novelty wheelchair performance earlier this year at Covent Garden, but even that took some effort to overcome my own reserve.
 
So do I have any conclusions? Well, no, not yet, anyway. It’s far too late on a Friday afternoon for that sort of thing. But I’d love to hear what you think. Does the atmosphere of an audience affect your enjoyment of a performance? Has an audience reaction startled you by its reserve or its enthusiasm? There should be a comment box at the bottom of this blog – it would be fascinating to hear your views.
 
 

Oliver Condy is the editor of BBC Music Magazine, a tenor with the Bristol-based chamber choir Exultate and plays the organ. He has never wolf-whistled at a concert.