Wide Angle

I Got Shushed at a Yo-Yo Ma Concert

The churchlike atmosphere audiences expect is killing classical music.

An old man shushes someone during an orchestra concert.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Arindam Mahanta on Unsplash and moodboard/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Yo-Yo Ma leans in to the first of Bach’s six suites for solo cello, alone on a vast, otherwise empty stage. It’s a muggy September evening at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California, a 10,000-seat outdoor amphitheater carved into the middle of a busy, urban college campus, normally host to touring rock bands. It’s sold out, of course—Yo-Yo Ma, the living embodiment of quality in classical music, will sell out any venue he plays.

Throughout the performance, which lasts 2½ hours without an intermission, people stomp up and down the aisles spilling their cups of beer, spectators gripe about the hard stone seats, kids fuss and shriek, airplanes roar overhead, and cars honk on the nearby road. Cellphones, banned in the program that nobody bothers to look at, beep out text alerts. It is, in other words, not the quietest venue.

A few bars into the prelude of the first suite, I notice that Ma is bowing the notes staccato, one note at a time, whereas my demanding childhood cello teacher insisted they should be bowed legato, slurred together in a long, sliding stroke. When I developed arthritis in my bowing hand my cello career ended, but my husband, seated next to me, is a professional musician and composer. So I lean over and say, in a very quiet whisper, “That bowing … ” Before the third word is out, the woman in front of me whips her head around, glares, and shushes me.

The gesture is more disruptive than anything I’d done, but she does it again when someone accidentally kicks a plastic bottle. She does it again when someone coughs. She does it again when a kid yawns loudly. By this point, I’ve lost any ability to focus on the music because I’m so distracted by her trying to get 10,000 people to shut up.

The day before, Yo-Yo Ma played a very different kind of gig, a street party in Oakland, where he performed alongside turf dancers, teen musicians, and graffiti artists. Ma has a long track record of advocacy for music education, and on his current tour he’s mixing concert venues with community shows. But the contrast was striking: The block party was free, while tickets for the Greek show started at $100. The Oakland audience was racially and generationally mixed. At the Greek, the audience mostly looked like the population of bourgeois Berkeley: older, white, and wealthy.

I grew up in Oakland, and my first exposure to classical music was at the Oakland Symphony’s children’s concerts. The symphony’s conductor was the late Calvin Simmons, the first black conductor of a major American orchestra. Simmons’ enthusiasm for music was infectious: He invited kids onstage, left the lights on in the art-deco Paramount Theatre, let us try out instruments, and made the shows vocal, interactive, and a hell of a lot of fun. When my parents occasionally took us to shows at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, I loved the music but was also bored out of my skull, fidgety, and itchy in dress-up clothes.

As a person whose primary beat is writing about religion, I can’t help but notice the parallels between classical music and religion in America today. As an aging Christian population watches its congregations shrink, younger seekers who don’t feel welcomed give up on church. Americans still discover classical music in their youth, but even those who play enthusiastically in school often can’t afford to go to the symphony, or if they do, they’re asked to treat it like a religious space, which it isn’t.

Classical music isn’t dying, but our ways of experiencing it are becoming ossified. People have told me stories ranging from being whacked on the head with a program for whispering to watching a child excited to see Misty Copeland dance being told to pipe down; a fistfight recently broke out at a Mahler concert in Sweden over someone rustling a gum wrapper. There’s even a whole genre of YouTube videos of conductors stopping concerts to quiet audiences. Based on the comments, these videos offer smug satisfaction for those who gloat that they would never make a peep at a concert. The implication is that a noisy audience at a classical show is an uneducated, unsophisticated audience, one that can’t possibly appreciate what’s on the stage.

But that’s not how classical music was originally meant to be heard. Bach’s music was certainly played for the 1 percenters of his time, but it was also played in taverns and coffeehouses, for talking, sweating, farting, working-class crowds. Bach was in many ways a glorified organ grinder, cranking out music to support his 20 children. (If those taverns were raucous, imagine what his home life was like!) Clerical and royal audiences in churches and palaces sat in silence, but in concert halls, the lights were left on so people could chat and flirt, and crowds often vocally demanded instant encores or booed loudly.

There are some ensembles that are working to deliver classical music in a way that’s more friendly to audiences that want interactive, collective experiences. For the past few years I’ve enjoyed boisterous experiences of classical music thanks to Awesöme Orchestra, a Bay Area communal orchestra led by local conductor David Möschler.* (Full disclosure: My husband’s a percussionist with the group.) Awesöme Orchestra brings together classical musicians for open rehearsals followed by a full performance. Möschler, who says too many orchestras have become “nineteenth century cover bands,” wanted to make an orchestra experience where the musicians “had a say in it” and they could combine classical pieces with the work of contemporary composers, video game music, film scores, pop music, and mashups.

At Awesöme Orchestra sessions, Möschler invites questions from the audience between pieces, musicians get free beer, and admission is free or pay what you can. The events take place all over the Bay Area, but rarely in concert halls—I attended one at a steel foundry, and they often play at local libraries and in parks. For Möschler, the expectation of a silent audience is something “people are shamed into”; part of his goal, he says, is to retrain silent classical audiences to interact with the musicians and their fellow audience members. In other words, the point is about an audience and orchestra becoming a community, together.

I wish I could tell the shushing woman we need ways of experiencing classical music other than treating it like a fragile, breakable object in order for it to thrive. She wanted classical music to conform to her ideas of what it should be, but if that means shaming an audience for making any sort of noise, that shaming will only push more people away. An audience that can’t communicate, fidget, tend to a child, or cough is one that isn’t in touch with its humanity—the very core of the attendees, the part that the music is meant to touch. I’d like to tell her that when Yo-Yo Ma played on the streets of Oakland, he rolled up his sleeves. Maybe audiences need to start doing the same.

Correction, Oct. 25, 2018: This piece originally misspelled the last name of conductor David Möschler.