Rhinegold Photo credit: Jens Gerber
Andris Nelsons conducts the Gewandhaus Orchestra

Andrew Mellor

We shouldn’t be too surprised that folk are fighting in our concert halls

9:18, 15th January 2019

1600 Swedes settled down for an evening of ferocious, unbridled passions at Malmö Live Concert Hall on 11 October. And that is what they got. First came Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s trumpet concerto Nobody Knows de Trouble I See, but few could have guessed what trouble our audiences of orderly Scandinavians would actually see unfolding a little over an hour later. After an apparently fissile rendition of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony from Andris Nelsons and the Gewandhaus Orchestra, fisticuffs broke out between two punters in the stalls. Yes, that’s right: an actual fight.

No journalist likes to miss out on a good story, but I regrettably wasn’t present to witness this, the first classical music event on my patch for years to attract international tabloid press attention (or a few paragraphs in the Independent). But 11 October was a tricky one for Greater Copenhagen music fans, as local resident Lise Davidsen was singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (you’ll forgive me for choosing to attend that).

Still, I was in Malmö a few weeks later for a performance of Verdi’s Requiem from the Malmö Symphony Orchestra and Robert Trevino. The same hall was sold out twice over, which may or may not have been down to a smart move from the orchestra’s PR chief who had been interviewed a couple of weeks earlier for that story in the Independent. In the article, Anna-Maria Havskogen was asked if there were any upcoming concerts ‘that might cause emotions to run wild.’ Sensing an opportunity, she responded cannily: ‘Verdi’s Requiem on 1 and 2 November.’ All she left out was the box office number.

Personally, I would deem any orchestral concert that doesn’t cause emotions to run wild to be something of a let down (unless it consisted exclusively of restful Fauré and Pärt). But that’s not the way we have been conditioned to see things. The Independent’s headline – Classical Music Concert Descends Into Brawl – was intended to sound like some sort of contradiction in terms. Naturally, the journalist who wrote it was reluctant to explore the idea that Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is actually preoccupied with violent confrontation.

Much of the music we present is the very opposite of relaxing, despite effective marketing to the contrary

Why? First, because that’s a non-story. Second, because it’s other music, not classical music, that prompts strong emotional and physical reactions. Or so we are told. There are complicated reasons why we tend to think along the same lines as that journalist and the readers he was titillating. Many of them are rooted in certain ideas about tradition and etiquette that have varying degrees of validity. What’s undeniable is that a significant proportion of the repertoire orchestral works from the last 100 years from Bartók to Adès are filled with a violent rage that few other genres ever get near. Their anger is genuine, written-in and often born of extraordinary situations.

Of course, you don’t have to be confronted with those works, in particular, to be put through the emotional ringer at a concert. Perhaps that’s why the Metropolitan Police found themselves investigating a scrap that took place in the amphitheatre at Covent Garden recently after the second of the Royal Opera’s recent Ring cycles. It is not accepting or endorsing violence to argue that much of the music we present is the very opposite of relaxing, despite some very effective marketing to the contrary.

What actually happed in Malmö was this: someone in the audience had become so frustrated by someone else’s rustling of a sweet wrapper during the slow movement of the Mahler – who wouldn’t? – that they simmered for half an hour before boiling over after the ovations and executing an effective left hook.

But the whole sorry saga ends on a positive note if we consider Havskogen’s revealing comment to the hack from the Independent. Of course Verdi’s Requiem contains music strong enough to release emotions inside us that we maybe didn’t even know we had. That is a powerful message considering the number of people who have still allowed themselves to be persuaded that classical music is boring. It is something we all know is true, but are hopelessly bad at anchoring, embracing and communicating while our colleagues in the parallel universes of extreme sports, rock music and even film would see it as a virtue worth shouting (loudly) about.

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