The Way It Used to Be

We (meaning bloggers and various and sundry arts writers) often talk about how the arts attendance experience was a lot less like the staid and proper process of sitting in a dark room facing a stage. However, other than a few generalizations, we didn’t have much to offer in the way of concrete specifics.

Or at least that has been the case here at Butts In The Seats.

Fortunately, blogger and arts critic Terry Teachout comes to the rescue with an article about the good old days in Commentary this month. Since he addresses piano concerts people who perform or attend such concerts probably have a better idea about some of the things to which he refers. It is clear to the general audience that things were a little looser by today’s standards. There was more embellishment and improvisation even from the composers themselves.

“…British composer Charles Villiers Stanford heard Johannes Brahms play his Second Piano Concerto, he observed that the composer ‘took it for granted that the public knew he had written the right notes, and did not worry himself over such little trifles as hitting the wrong ones. . . . [T]hey did not disturb his hearers any more than himself.'”

Liszt apparently had a urn placed in lobbies and would sit at the piano reviewing the suggestions placed within by audience members and would chat with them between pieces. Audience members, for their part “…thought nothing of applauding not merely between movements, but in order to pay tribute to a particularly well-played passage in the middle of a piece.”

It is dishonest in a sense to talk about “how things used to be” because the reality was that these gentlemen were the popular musicians of their time and everything Teachout cites is no different than attending a contemporary music concert today. Musicians improvise on their own work knowing that the audience is aware of the more perfect version produced in a studio but don’t care that they aren’t playing it exactly like the album. The audience will applaud during the opening notes of the song, after the solo and will sing along. Unless you are the only one singing and are out of tune and drunk, no one generally cares.

Teachout says he is not encouraging a raucous free for all, but a general loosening of some aspects of the experience. I am familiar enough with classical music to be certain, but I imagine I would agree with him. I wouldn’t necessarily want people walking through the aisles hawking oranges while I am watching Shakespeare. The language is so complex and delicious that you need to devote a bit more attention than you would at a Mamet play which, truth be told, has a complexity and deliciousness of language of its own.

It doesn’t take much effort to imagine someone associated with an orchestra would say the same thing about the product they offer. It may have been popular entertainment at one time, but it does require more attentiveness to appreciate these days.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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