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posted August 19, 2013

Noises off

If I was a conductor I would not rely on the applause at the end of a piece to gauge the success of a performance. Instead I would look to the more immediate feedback of how much coughing and restlessness there is during the music itself. Because there is always applause at the end and you can always put a spin on how enthusiastic it is. But there is no avoiding the evidence of distraction in an audience which coughs its way through the show.

Last night at the Proms (Sunday 18 August, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Matthias Pintscher) I sat through an extraordinary barrage of coughing, which continued through most of the concert. And although it was clearly the fault of those unable or unwilling to control their throats, the thought did occur that it might be at least partly the responsibility of the performers to make the audience forget their laryngeal tickles through the quality of their music-making.

And indeed the quantity of the coughing was in correlation with the quality of the playing. It was worst during a slightly ragged reading of Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole. It was little better during the London premiere of Pintscher’s own double trumpet concerto, which was arresting at the beginning and end, but spent too much of the time in between avoiding letting the trumpets sound like trumpets (however well the solo parts were played, by Tine Thing Helseth and Marco Blaauw). It was only in the second half of Stravinsky’s Firebird that things improved, despite some more wobbly moments. I was rather more aware of the padding in the score than I have been in better performances, but the last 10 minutes are impossible to resist, the orchestra rose to the challenge and the audience duly shut up.

Stand-up comedians are used to getting their feedback as they go: there are laughs or there aren’t, and no-one having delivered a set to awkward silence would be fooled into thinking themselves a success by a warm clap at the end. Likewise here; the audience noise told a truer story than the generous applause at the end. It wasn’t a bad concert, just not up there with the best, and failed to carry the hall with it. And it called mind Daniel Barenboim’s tribute to the Proms audience at the end of his well-received Ring cycle this year: ‘you have brought so much silence’. The conductor’s ultimate tribute.

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