Tuesday, November 22, 2005


Should Orchestral Musicians Put On a Happy Face?

By David Lister

Members of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra have been accused by their audiences of looking too miserable. I have myself looked miserable in Bournemouth in the autumn. It's not an offence. But the residents of Bournemouth like their orchestras to put on a happy face. It was reported this week that complaints have been posted on the orchestra's website about how down in the dumps the players look. The distinguished ensemble has even been nicknamed The Glums.

Audience dissatisfaction with unsmiling musicians is spreading. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle's former outfit, has also fallen foul of its audience for not wearing sunny Birmingham grins. I naturally assumed that orchestra officials would have reminded audiences that this isn't Strictly Come Dancing. The musicians are concentrating and can't give cheesy grins on demand. But no. This is the age of marketing departments, audience satisfaction surveys and National Smile Days. It is the orchestras, not the audiences, that are being given a lesson in concert behavior. The managements are developing smiling policies, and the issue is on the agenda for discussion at the next Association of British Orchestras conference.

Anthony Brown, the head of marketing for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, says: 'A perennial problem is that the orchestra members don't seem to enjoy themselves. It tends to be the ones that don't who people notice. The violins and the cellos, who are at the front, often get noticed.' Well, it's good to know that the timpani, French horn and oboe guys are having a giggle at the back. No doubt, the Bournemouth management will come up with a smile policy for those front-row miserabilists. In fact, it already has. This, of course,is the orchestra whose management seems obsessed with happy faces. A couple of years ago, players were ordered to look at different sections of the audience for three beats and smile. Can it get more surreal than Bournemouth?

Of course it can. There's always Birmingham. The CBSO management has formed a 'presentation committee'. Who cares if you're a virtuoso if you don't scrub up well and never show your teeth? Sarah Gee, the director of communications for the CBSO, says that one woman told them that her enjoyment of a concert had been wrecked by a dour musician. 'She caught one of the musician's eyes and gave him the thumbs up, but he lowered his gaze. It destroyed the evening for her.' What an inconsiderate musician that was. He could at least have given a thumbs-up sign back and continued playing with one hand. Indeed, perhaps, every three beats they should smile and every six beats give a communal thumbs-up to show they are truly having a ball.

Alternatively, their managements could come back to Earth and ask audiences to give the musicians a break. Do we really want symphony orchestras that beam at the spectators? Surely their faces should reflect the music they are playing. The accomplished musician should look intense for Beethoven, depressed but hugely moved for Mahler and totally confused for Birtwistle. But happy and smiling? It makes playing a symphony seem like a bit of a jaunt and destroys the poignancy of the work.

There is a code of conduct for audiences at classical concerts, just as there is for the players. Don't grin, and don't expect the performers to grin at you. Be moody. Look miserable. And always cough between movements. It shows you know your music.

* * *

This is a comment to update you on the BSO - this evening Marin Allsop commanded, sorry, conducted a magnificent concert -
Tchaikovsky Hamlet (well, we have to start with something), then a superb Truls Mork in Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No 1; the interval/ break (for coffee to keep the concentration going), lead to Beethoven Symphony No. 7 and the BSO were fabulous - genuine enjoyment and concentration by the orchestra - that is all we ask - smiles and thumbs up - never !
However, the point of this comment, my point, is the audience; yes we showed our appreciation with heartfelt applause for Marin and the orchestra, but I have never seen so many 'wooly pullies' and fleece jackets at a concert before - I know its a bit cold and wet in Bournemouth at this time of year, but if the orchestra can make the effort - DJs and enthusiasm, surely the concert goers can show a bit of appreciation and look good too !
Thanks, I shall visit your blog again, to learn from your erudite analysis.
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