Kyung Wha Chung has been in the back of my mind for decades. Her recording of the Berg (and Bartók) Violin Concerto(s) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Sir Georg Solti has long been on my list of favorite recordings, all the more so for making a difficult work intelligible to the listener. Her other recordings have mostly escaped my attention, and I’ve never heard her perform live. Three interesting developments have brought her again to my attention: Decca’s new release of a box set of her recordings, her return to the London stage that first brought her fame, and her regrettable response to an audience coughing fit from that stage. Coverage of the last two news items has been provided by Norman Lebrecht at his website Slipped Disc. I’ve linked to Lebrecht twice in the past, but he’s not on my blogroll because he writes deplorable clickbait headlines. I appreciate his work aggregating classical music news, which is mostly about personnel (hiring and firing), but his obvious pandering irks me. The incident of the coughing spasm filtering through the audience, however, attracted my attention independent of the individuals involved. Commentary at Slipped Disc runs the gamut from “she was right to respond” to “an artist should never acknowledge the public in such a manner.” The conflict is irresolvable, of course, but let me opine anyway.
Only a few venues/activities exist where cultured people go to enjoy themselves in the exercise of good manners and taste. The concert hall (classical music, including chamber music and solo recitals but not popular musics) is one such oasis. Charges of snobbery and elitism are commonplace when criticisms of the fine arts come into play, but the mere fact that absolutely anyone can buy a ticket and attend puts the lie to that. Better to focus such coarse thinking on places like golf, country, and suppers clubs that openly exclude nonmembers, typically on the basis of nonpayment of onerous membership fees. Other bases for exclusion I will leave alone. (The supposition that sophistication accompanies wealth is absurd, as anyone having acquaintance with such places can attest.) I note, too, that democratization of everything has brought more access to fine arts to everyone — but at a cost, namely, the manners and self-control needed for the audience space to function effectively has eroded in the last few decades.
Is has been said that all arts aspire to the condition of music, with its unity of subject matter and form that foster direct connection to the emotions. As such, the concert artist (and ensembles) in the best case scenario casts an emotional spell over audiences. In response, audiences cannot sit in stony silence but should be emotionally open and engaged. Distractions, whether visual or aural, unavoidably dispel the tone established in performance, no matter if they happen to occur during the brief interval between movements rather than during performance. A noisy, extended interval where the audience coughed, fidgeted, and otherwise rearranged itself reportedly occurred after the first movement of a Mozart sonata performed by Kyung Wha Chung, and she was irritated enough to respond indelicately by upbraiding the parent of a child, the child unfortunately being among the last to be heard coughing. As a result, there was a palpable tension in the room that didn’t wear off, not unlike when an audience turns on a performer.
Audience disruption at concerts is not at all unusual; in some estimations, lack of decorum has only increased over the years. My first memory of a concert being temporarily derailed by the audience was in the middle 1980s. So now the arguments are flying back and forth, such as that the audience pays to see/hear what’s offered onstage and the artist has no business complaining. Another goes that the artist should be operating on a lofty aesthetic plane that would disallow notice-taking of audience behavior. (Miles Davis is renowned and sometimes reviled for having often turned his back to the audience in performance.) Both quite miss the point that it is precisely an emotional circuit among composer (or by proxy, the composer’s work), performer, and audience that makes the endeavor worthwhile. Excellence in composition and performance are requirements, and so too is the thoughtful contribution of the audience to close the circuit. Suggestions that boorish behavior by audiences is irrelevant fail to account for the sensitivity needed among all parties to make the endeavor effective.
It happens that I gave a solo recital a few months ago, my first in more than a decade. I am by no means an artist anywhere near the accomplishment of Kyung Wha Chung (few are, frankly), but I rely on audience response the same as any performer. My first surprise was the number of no-shows among my friends and peers who had confirmed their attendance. Then, after the completion of the first four-movement sonata, the audience sat silently, not making a peep. It fell to me to respond, to invite applause, to overcome the anxiety in the room regarding the proper way to act. (Clapping between movements is not customary, and clumsy audiences who clap in the wrong places have sometimes been shushed, so I surmised there was fear about when applause was supposed to happen.) Further, due to the awkwardness of the performance space (only one place the piano would fit), three latecomers (35+ min. into the performance) paraded right past me, between movements, to get seated. I was affected by these surprises but tried to take them in stride. Still, it’s fair to say my concentration was more than a little rattled. So I have some sympathy for any performer whose audience behaves unpredictably.
At the extremes, there are artists whose performance style is deep concentration or a nearly hypnotic state where even small disruptions take them out of the moment, whereas others can continue unimpeded through an air raid. No one-size-fits-all solution exists, of course, and in hindsight, it’s always possible to imagine better ways to respond to setbacks. However, I cannot join in the side of the debate that condemns Kyung Wha Chung, however regrettable her response was.