Livestreamed Concerts: The Good, The Bad, and the Implications

My local orchestra has been livestreaming chamber music concerts this season, and I’ve subscribed. I thought about getting a ticket to be part of the limited in-person audience, but for a number of reasons decided against it, one being that I have to drive an hour each way to get there. And my schedule is still weird, despite the fact there’s not much on it. I would have already missed an in-person concert due to picking up my son from college. Since I’ve been watching livestreamed concerts, I want to take a moment to talk about what I like and dislike about them. At the end, I will talk about the implications this could have on performances, live or livestreamed, going forward.

The Good

The view. Watching livestreamed performances is a little bit like watching sports on T.V. In the concert hall, as in the arena, there are seats with a good view and seats with almost no view at all. You guessed it – the seats that are the most affordable are the farthest distance from the action. I don’t mind this in a concert hall. I care about how the musicians play more than what they are wearing or what expressions they make on their faces while performing. I actually prefer sitting in the balcony seats because I can hear the entire orchestra blended rather than sitting closest to the violins and hearing almost nothing else. The technology of the livestreamed performance, however, allows me to hear the full ensemble sound and see the musicians up close. The view is much closer than even the first rows of a concert hall would allow, since the cameras are on stage. Last week I watched a piano trio perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Trio in Bb Major, Op.97. The camera shots were well done and captured each musician individually as they had “mini solos” throughout the piece. It was not unlike watching a great sports play, except there was no repeat of the play in slow motion.

I get to read scores easily. When I’m at home, I’ve got the lights on. I can grab a score off the shelf or find one online and follow along. It’s not that I can’t read a score at the concert hall, but it is more difficult. I’d either have to attend an open rehearsal, or I’d have to risk bothering my fellow patrons, turning on my phone’s flashlight and making noise turning pages. I would definitely need a paper copy of the score – a computer screen would create far too much light and possibly even bother the musicians on stage.

I get to walk around. Sometimes I have a hard time sitting for long periods, especially when that’s all I’m doing. I rarely watch TV, and I can’t get through a movie without pausing it and taking a quick break (one reason I also like watching movies at home!) A concert hall near me has the most uncomfortable seats. Sitting in them actually causes me physical pain; I am not inclined to spend money to sit in them. While livestreaming a performance, I can move around while still listening. A couple of weeks ago, while watching a performance of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto online, I remembered I had a copy of the score on the shelf and went to go get it. I didn’t have to climb over other people’s knees to leave my seat. The freedom to get out of my seat and walk around during a performance is a big plus.

I get to talk. Again, this is not unlike watching sports on T.V. If a group of people get together to watch a sports game, they cheer and yell at the screen. They complain about the umpire or referee’s calls, they criticize a player’s bad throw, and they jump up and down and cheer when a great play has been made. A livestreamed performance allows for all this, compared to the concert hall where we’ve been taught that we must sit still and be quiet as church mice. A couple of weeks ago, I watched a performance (I will keep the piece and performers nameless to protect their identities – all I will say is that it was a professional group), and it was awful. The players were so out of tune I twisted my face in reaction. I said out loud, “Play in tune!” and questioned, “Have you been practicing in quarantine?” But on the positive side of things, when pieces went well I could cheer. There were many moments during the Beethoven trio which brought out an “Ooh, that was nice!” or “Wow!” or a quick clap of joy.

The Bad

The musicians can’t hear me clap. I still clap at the end while watching from home, though honestly I didn’t clap at the end of that one awful piece. I clap because I’m happy. I enjoyed the piece. I enjoyed the performance. The clapping is just one expression of that. I feel bad that the musicians can’t hear that through a livestreamed performance because I want them to know how much I enjoyed it. The best livestreams are on platforms that allow comments while the music is going on, and then have a Q&A at the end, because in this way the audience has some ability to interact with the performers.

The Implications

Music is a performing art. This distinction is extremely important, because the performance is what sets music (and other performing arts) apart from static arts, like visual art, books, or even sound installations – all of which seem to me like a one-sided conversation. The author, painter, sculptor, or sound artist has already spoken and presented a viewpoint. They don’t know my response to their work unless I go out of my way to find them and send a letter. A performance, in comparison, involves both performers and audience in real time, and the relationship between the two has been set into relief during this pandemic.

Most musicians will tell you that they feed off the audience, and that performing without one is very difficult. This is true across all genres of music.

However, the relationship between performers and audience has been quite different across genres of music. Think about attending a rock concert. There’s no sitting quiet as church mice. There’s jumping, shouting and cheering, singing along. Think about attending a folk concert of any kind. Some may sit in rapt attention. Others may get up and dance or bring a picnic. I’ve been to informal outdoor concerts where parents are throwing a Frisbee with their kids. They’re not not paying attention. They are simply enjoying the music in a different way.

Classical music has been too much like a one-sided conversation. The music is presented like a piece of art hung on the wall – the performers present, the audience listens, formally and quietly. Then the audience gets to respond in a prescribed manner: clap at the end.

This robs the audience of being able to fully engage naturally with the music. In watching the livestreams, I’ve become aware of my own desire to react and respond while listening, instead of just clapping at the end. I want the freedom to express that. If the music is bad, the musicians deserve to be called out as much as football players who fumble the ball. If the music is good, how much nicer it is to hear the gleeful response of the audience in real time. I have had the experience of hearing the audience cheer while I performed a piano solo. It was incredible! The rawness of the immediate response only further energized my playing.

The downside is that if a musicians botch a performance, the audience will let them know. (Will that make musicians even more neurotic, or will it crack the facade of perfectionism and ultimately lead to freedom from it?) The way I see it is: if I dare share something publicly, whether my art or my opinion, I dare open myself up to public mistakes and criticism. I’m not saying that is easy; this is precisely why it is scary and most people don’t try. Decades ago, composers faced boos and even riots at premieres of their compositions. Silence is worse. At least criticism lets one know that the audience cares.

In general, I’d love to see classical music concerts become more set up like watching a sports game in an arena. In a large concert hall, keep the cameras on stage. Set up screens around the hall so those who wish to see some up-close shots can. Leave the lights on dim, so those of us who want to read scores can without being a nuisance. Allow people to get up and move around, maybe even do some free-dorm dance, and eat in certain sections. Allow a reasonable amount of talking. Perhaps some amplification would be needed to adjust for that. Let the audience respond naturally to the music in boos and cheers and clapping in random places.

No one expects the audience to sit still and quiet during sports events, or during rock concerts. So why do we do this during classical concerts? I don’t think I want to go back to sitting still in uncomfortable seats crammed in like sardines and muzzled like dogs. I want my reaction as an audience member to be part of the concert experience. Perhaps these changes will remove “boring, stiff, and formal” from the classical repertoire.

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