After a recent performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde by the National Symphony Orchestra, one of the players quipped that he felt “like an anesthesiologist” after watching what looked like a significant portion of audience members “go under”. (“There were so many people with their heads back and mouths opened,” he added, “that it looked like a scattered choir singing up to heaven”). I nodded in assent; this certainly wasn’t out of the ordinary. Not long ago a performance of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht in the same venue had ended to reveal a very neat round of cadential snoring, and I think it’s safe to say that a very small but visible (occasionally audible!) percentage of American audiences spend a good bit of the concert experience sawing logs.
Barring physical fatigue, there seem to be two reasons the napper might find him or herself in such a plight: either a) he/she is so profoundly enjoying the experience that sleep comes on as sincere relaxation, or b) that the slumbering concertgoer is straight-up bored and doesn’t really want to be there, but some social or psychological compulsion obliges attendance.
It’s the second option that I find fascinating—those individuals who differ from the uninterested, unadventurous stay-at-home curmudgeons only by virtue of their attendance (and not out of an actual sense of interest or adventurous appetite). I am more curious or perhaps puzzled by these kinds of people than anything else, but their very existence raises a strange question: for those of us who care deeply about the arts and classical music in particular, what should our attitude be towards those who technically participate in the music community but do so for reasons or in ways that the core music community—the performers and audience members that actually want to be there—might find objectionable. Is our tiny community so desperate for concerts that we must welcome and tolerate the behavior of anyone willing to buy a ticket? Or is it a species of Phariseeism to try and encourage a few slightly higher standards, maybe at the risk of a few more empty seats? What does it matter if a seat is full, if that body isn’t even conscious?