Concerts for Newcomers

This article is in preparation for a concert I’ll be attending tomorrow and some things I got to thinking about while preparing to think about writing the article about said concert that’ll be posted in the next few days.
Anyway, the article I posted last month about the sacredness of the concert hall is also semi-related to this article I posted almost a year ago about concert etiquette. That article was prompted by a large, rude, uncouth jackass of a man who blessed me out for putting my arm on “[his] side of the armrest” mid Gurre-Lieder. It was maddening. He was also rude to his family. Jackass.
Anyway, I remember at some point reading some quite considerate articles on the websites of a few quite considerate symphony orchestras about the entire symphony-attending process, answering such questions as “What should I wear?” “Can I bring kids?” “How early should I arrive?” “How long does the program last?” and other things that people might feel stupid for asking but also genuinely need to know. Going to an opera or a concert might be a bit more hifalutin than your average weekend event, but what it is not is elitist, exclusive we-don’t-want-your-kind-here, as long as your kind isn’t the coughing-during-the-quiet-moments, unwrapping-loud-candy, fiddling-with-my-cell-phone, forgot-to-turn-off-my-alarm kind. Other than that, everyone should feel perfectly welcome at the concert hall once they’ve read my article on etiquette, linked above.
But even if you know not to record the program or clap between movements or audibly yawn or turn on your flashlight or fart or bring your misbehaving children or a pack lunch or whatever, there are still a few obstacles to face for the uninitiated. Let me be clearer: once all the behavioral and social aspects are out of the way, what else is needed to make sure the newbie enjoys their first concert?
Well, first, it’s hopefully that everyone else around them is as polite and well behaved as they are.
What I’m really getting at here, though, is the suitableness of a program to someone who’s new to classical music. What I’m not talking about is some child prodigy or familiar listener who already knows all the music but happens to have never been to a concert before. They’ll be blown away.
I’m talking about a program, and I’m talking to you people who go to concerts and know programs and listen to classical music already. You are ambassadors of classical music for those who’ve never experienced the ethereal bliss of enjoying an inspired live performance.
Two hours can be a long time to sit for anything; people even need to get up for potty breaks during movies, but that’s frowned upon at concerts.
So first, nothing too long. Recent concerts I’ve been to, like Mahler’s third or Bruckner’s eighth have been one-piece programs, and although I brought a newbie to the Mahler, it might be better to have programs with intermissions.
And this is all obviously quite personal, or rather, subjective, but there are some pieces that, for a general non-professional member of society plucked at
random, would not be great choices for a first timer. The first that comes to mind in recent history was the fantastic Jean-Efflam Bavouzet piano recital a few months ago. The program was (with the exception of some Beethoven) all French: Debussy, Ravel, and Boulez. He played Boulez’s first piano sonata between the two Beethoven works, and while listening, I had a look around the hall to try to steal a glimpse at people’s reactions: at best, curious, the majority perplexed, some even impatient. It’s only a ten-ish minute work, and the entire concert, all evening, including the encores, was an experience that bordered on spiritual; it was amazing.
Other things that come to mind that would potentially not go over so well as first time concerts (and this is not a criticism, nor is it objective) for the people who I know and am basing this upon would be, well, most things written in the past hundred years. No matter how much I enjoy Schoenberg’s violin or piano concertos, people who don’t listen to classical music may find them… challenging.
Anyway, I won’t mention any names (Ligeti), but unless your newcomer is an adventurous type, it might be best to stick to something more whitebread. Even something like Mahler or Bruckner that isn’t post-tonal or serialist or anything can be challenging simply because of its bigness. Maybe tone that down a bit for the uninitiated. But then again, maybe they’d find Mozart boring; it all depends.
I quite prefer concertos, actually, for new people. A concerto gives the listener someone and something to focus on, to know what to listen to. They’re also virtuosic pieces, where a soloist (violin, cello, piano, whatever) gets to show off and make noises that, if nothing else, are impressively big, fast, or powerful to someone who might not get much other nuance.
I should say here, that as much as this might sound derogatory, it isn’t! I promise. I’m bringing a few people to a concert tomorrow evening that is just of this nature, and a few of them have never set foot in this or any concert hall before. It’s a program I feel is excellently suited for newcomers, and will hopefully leave a good, varied impression of the experience.
There are three pieces on the program, two of which are concertos, the middle being a fun piece I’ve actually never heard live. The first concerto and the symphonic poem are from within about three years of each other, and are essentially composers from their home countries writing about experiences in the other’s country (not intentionally; it just so happens). The third piece is drastically different.
In any case, these three pieces on the program are different enough from one another to give different experiences and impressions, appeal to some differences in taste, and maintain interest. We also have really good seats.
I once took a very good friend to a concert that, as I recall, had one of the pieces for tomorrow’s concert on the program as well as Beethoven’s fifth symphony (but this might be two different concerts I took the same person to). In any case, they worked in different ways. The concerto was unlike most classical music this person had heard before, and he enjoyed its uniqueness; and Beethoven’s fifth is a piece that everyone knows the first three minutes of, and sadly very little else. It’s not a long symphony, but one that is very easy to appreciate, so that was an awesome first concert experience.
I look around through concert programs for approachable concerts with the showstoppers that some of the more dedicated concertgoers might have tired of already: the Grieg concerto, the Mendelssohn violin concerto, Dvorak’s ninth, some of the mainstays, but they’re mainstays for a reason, and people are likely to enjoy them. To review:

  • A program/piece with something to focus on (a soloist, a theme like the fate motif in Beethoven’s fifth)
  • Some background information about the piece(s), like what was going on in the composer’s life at the time (“this was after Schoenberg moved to America” or “this is the piece that brought Rachmaninoff the success he needed to have the confidence to compose again”)
  • Nothing too long: no Mahler 3 or Gurre-Lieder or Ring Cycle
  • Preferably a program with some variety: something über-modern paired with something classical against something drippily Romantic (see the Bavouzet recital above)
Obviously it might be hard to find the perfect concert to introduce someone to the symphony, but I think these are a good place to start. And again, it depends on your newbie. They might be avant-garde adventurous highly curious, open-minded people, or they might be like my family. I would never take my family to hear Schoenberg. But you might. 
Bravo. 
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