Consider the Audience

This past Tuesday, I had an underwhelming experience with the LA Phil. The concert was an "All-American" chamber show, the first offering in their "Next on Grand" series, a celebration of contemporary American composers. The underwhelmingness wasn't the fault of the music, or not entirely. As with most grab-bag contemporary concerts, I was fonder of some selections than others, despite the consistently high level of performance on display. No, the music alone was fine. What really bothered me were the set changes.

I get it. On a concert like this, you're going to have to move some furniture. The first piece was for two trumpets and involved some spatial elements, meaning that the stage had to be bare so that the players could walk around freely. Next up was a piece for piano, clarinet, violin, and cello, and there's simply no way to go from "piano offstage" to "piano onstage" without, you know, wheeling a piano onstage. I don't begrudge them this physical necessity. I do begrudge them the tedium.

Because, you see, their modus operandi was to leave the house lights down and have stagehands shift everything around in silence. And this is really boring. Like, really, truly mind-numbing. It's too dark to read the program (regardless of how interesting the bios are) and there's still enough of the "middle of a concert" vibe that it feels awkward talking, even if you happen to have come with someone. Literally the only thing to do is watch the stagehands putter about, and let's be real, this is hardly riveting. In absolute time, the longest of these changeovers was probably only a few minutes, but under such conditions, even a few minutes feel like an agony.

It cost them audience members, too. During the interminable changeover between the second and third pieces, I noticed several people get up and leave the hall. I obviously didn't chase after them and give them exit interviews, but given the timing and the vibe from those closest to me, I got the unmistakable impression that they were leaving because they were on the fence about staying after the second piece and were tired of waiting for the start of the third.

Look at it like this: There were a total of six pieces on the program, each needing a different setup than the one before it. There was built-in time for one of those changes during the intermission, but that still left a total of four mid-concert breaks. Even if the lights had come up or everyone had a scintillating conversationalist next to them, that's still four built-in places where the audience is effectively encouraged to disengage from whatever's happening on stage and turn their attention elsewhere. Assuming that you'd like to engage your audience and keep them that way — and most performers in the current moment do seem to want to engage their audiences deeply — this is obviously a suboptimal strategy. Ideally, you'd create a scenario where you have no places that make the audience turn away; you'd capture their attention once, at the start, and then have it until the end.

(This, incidentally, is a big motivating factor for scene change music in theatrical contexts. Sure, it can serve other functions in terms of key centers, motivic development, and so on, but the main reason it's there is to keep the audience from drifting back out of the world of the show, to keep them engrossed from the moment the curtain goes up to the moment it goes back down.)

And the most frustrating thing was how close they were to fixing this. Because at two points during the evening, one of the players talked about the piece they were going to be playing, in both cases at quite some length. Only they only did this once the stage was completely set; the stage change and the verbal program note were two different events.

Combine them. If you have to have a set change, come out and talk while it's happening. Tell us what to expect from the music, tell us why it's significant to you; connect with us as a person so that we're not watching anonymous, amorphous strangers plow thru something we've never heard. Break down the barriers between the performers and the audience. And, critically, keep our attention focussed on what's going on on stage; don't give us any time to drift away. Nothing should ever be more interesting to the audience than what's happening on stage during a performance.

This seems like a petty thing, but I think it's absolutely necessary to think about when planning a top-quality performance. I don't think that audience experience should be the only consideration in concert design, but to ignore it completely is a grave error. To be honest, the Next on Grand concert felt almost disrespectful, disdainful on that front, as if it radiated an entitled attitude of taking the audience for granted. "We'll have your attention whenever we want it,", was the impression it sent, "And we're not going to do anything so tawdry as to consider your needs, to do anything to earn that attention for a solid two hours." Don't do this. Consider your audience. If you don't want to talk, fine, but do something. Don't leave us twiddling our thumbs in the dark.