Now listen carefully…

Jeremy Pound on the increasingly difficult art of concert concentration

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What sort of live music listener are you? By that, I mean are you easily distracted and need your fellow concert-goers to remain impeccably still and quiet if you are to concentrate on the music? Or are you the type who can take your seat and immediately ‘zone in’ on the performance on stage, remaining utterly oblivious to anything else that might be going on around the hall?

By and large, I’ve always thought I’ve fallen into the latter group. OK, so I strongly believe that anyone who fails to turn their mobile phone off during a performance (and, worse still, answers it) should be forced to stand with their head directly between the cymbals next time a Shostakovich symphony is in town, but otherwise I feel my tolerance levels are pretty high. If someone wants to clap after the first movement of a symphony, for instance, it’s not going to ruin my enjoyment of the second.

But however tolerant one thinks one is, or at least tries to be, you can be bound that someone or something will come along to push that tolerance to the very limit. Take three experiences of my own that came within the space of just one month earlier this year.

Firstly, during an otherwise delightful recital for soprano and violin in Sofia, Bulgaria, did the parents who let their children run up and down, up and down, up and down the side of the auditorium throughout the concert really think we wouldn’t notice? And then, what exactly was it that was so important to two 20-somethings in Lugano, Switzerland that they had to gabble it to each other during the first movement of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto, played by Martha Argerich? Yes. Martha Argerich, no less – one of the greatest pianists of any era, but whose performances are as rare as hen’s teeth.

But my worst bile, alas, is reserved for ‘Mrs Jangle’, who sat a couple of rows behind me at a piano trio recital at my local, the Cheltenham Festival. She looked fairly intelligent… so did she not think beforehand that, as someone who clearly has trouble sitting even relatively still, an array of large bangles on her right wrist might not be the best attire for a concert? And had she not twigged that, in the event of a runny nose, placing her packet of tissues below her very large bunch of very jangly keys in her handbag might be potentially problematic? Grrr.

As we have reported in the current issue of BBC Music Magazine, composer Jonathan Harvey recently made a well considered appeal for concert hall etiquette to loosen up, so that potential new listeners won’t feel intimidated. In sentiment, I agree with him entirely. But, in practice, I fear that the more that one offers an inch, the more people will take a mile – and there’s a limit to how far classical music in the concert hall can withstand that.

Jeremy Pound is deputy editor of BBC Music Magazine. He's not normally so grumpy.