Kyle Gann has a wonderful blog here about audience behaviors, specifically in New York. The quick, dirty, and utterly insufficient summary would be that audiences differ but sometimes behave predictably, that audiences in different spaces can have characteristic behaviors, and that mob psychology (all right, “group psychology”) sometimes informs behavior. Read it yourselves, though; Gann has plenty of pithy comments to make about new music performance spaces, the NY Phil, Jazz clubs etc. Here’s a small sample: “When I talk about ‘the audience’ I may have BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music—and I know what he means] in mind if I’m thinking of a perfect world, or the NY Phil in mind if I’m thinking of them as a bunch of shits who don’t deserve anything better than Kenny G, but I am thinking of an entity that possesses, for me, a palpable presence.”
Well, I don’t know how they do it in New York, but…
The question of audience behaviors and motivations is an interesting one, though, and perhaps the very last one that performers want to hear about. Pre-programmed—or at least predisposed—audience behavior suggests is that there is rather more disconnect than you’d like between what a performer does and how the audience responds. As a performer, you may get less than you deserve, or more, or something only marginally related to what you’ve done, or earned. Pianists sometimes talk ironically about this: you finish, and the audience applauds themselves for having been there. What, then, is the actual relevance of the supposedly audience-pleasing strategies we hear about? A trumpet teacher says, confidently, that since the audience is paying the hear the trumpet soloist, s/he should play soloistically, even on accompanimental or secondary lines. Awkward question, from the father of a trumpet player: when was the last time anyone actually paid for a trumpet recital? I’m enjoying learning the repertoire—Balay, Ropartz, various arrangements—but really, do people pay to hear this? This repertoire is heard mostly on university campuses, yes? We all know that the dynamics here are complex indeed: is your teacher watching, or playing, is this a friend of yours, is this a girl you’re interested in, is this a piece you’ve played, is this a concert for which you, as a music appreciation student with mediocre class attendance, are receiving extra credit? What in heaven’s name is a performer to conclude about a performance just given, based on capricious audience reaction?
I often wonder if anyone knows what the hell classical musicians are doing; how much do listeners really get of the topics and styles, themes, form, unity, emotional communication, whatever? It’s not like this music is culturally current, either in terms of how widely it is heard or its idiom. And, you should excuse me, the same can be said of Jazz, and of a good deal of rock. Jazz is quite historical, thank you, which means that for whatever risk is involved, solos are still often attempts to speak an archaic language. Whether they work or not…again, many variables; I love it when people (like Robert Levin) improvise cadenzas in a Mozartean idiom in Mozart concertos, but others sometimes raise their noses at this sort of thing—just “museum music,” don’t you know. I’ve been to plenty of concerts by mega-super rock acts who play…y’know, fine, and the audience orgasms, basically because they’re supposed to. The musicians themselves expect audience hysteria because, after all, they’re used to adulation. As for the audiences, well, given how much they spent on the tickets it had better be a performance for the ages, no? No matter how canned and predictable, with just the right mix of songs in the right order.
So, given the ridiculous number of variables—audience type, mood, ignorance, impatience, the temperature, the situation, the acoustics etc.—it’s hard to imagine how their reactions have anything more than a tangential relationship to what you did up there. Not to depress you, but…
Then there’s Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, which everyone gets.