Does the Audience Matter at a Performance?

Denisa and I had the chance to go to a live performance of Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies here on campus on Saturday, part of the New Commons programming that’s been running here since fall. It was a great performance, and I was so happy to have it here. (I’ve been a huge fan of the New Commons project, even though I haven’t been able to go to nearly as much of the programming as I’d have liked. Pesky work meetings keep getting in the way.)

But as I was listening to the performance, I couldn’t help thinking of other things. (Too much going on in my life at the moment, and a brain too easily distracted sometimes.) One of the things that occurred to me is how much different a live performance is from a recorded one.

There’s a spectrum when it comes to performance. On the one hand, you have the totally packaged offerings of Hollywood. Things that have been spliced and edited together to the point that they remove pretty much any of the original “live” nature. On the other, you have 100% live performances. In between, there are broadcasts of live performances, where you watch something as it’s literally happening elsewhere, and there are also recordings of live broadcasts, where you watch it after the fact.

I personally prefer live performances, but sometimes I wonder why that is. I’m even still willing to pay money to see movies in the theater, despite having a sweet home theater set up. And when I see things with an audience, there’s always a chance I’m stuck next to someone who’s noisy or annoying through the film or performance. (We had a guy next to us who started singing along to some of the performance on Saturday. I kid you not. Thankfully, he stopped.)

So wouldn’t it make sense to just watch everything at home? To buy the finest recordings and view them all on a great sound system?

I don’t think it would.

As I sat there enjoying the performance, it occurred to me that the audience is an integral part of that performance. Part of this insight came as I watched the bass trombone player sitting through most of the symphonies, doing absolutely nothing other than listening, since he had no part to play except every now and then. Did his not-playing add to the performance? Obviously, since he could have grabbed his instrument and started wailing away whenever he wanted to, and that would have ruined it all, just like the guy sitting next to me might have ruined things for me if he’d chosen to sing through the whole performance.

Watching a movie with a throng of people who are also loving the movie adds to my enjoyment of the movie. (Conversely, watching something with a group of people who are all NOT enjoying the movie detracts from my enjoyment considerably.) Watching a sports event live in a stadium heightens the emotions, whether it’s the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.

There’s just something you get by that collective shared experience that you can’t capture in a recording. Watching it live, remotely, can have some of it, but it’s not the same thing.

Which leads me to the inevitable conclusion that humans connect with each other in so many ways that aren’t immediately observable. Sitting there with so many people all intent on the same goal (more or less), you pool all that focus. In the concert, there were other sounds in the room than the symphony itself. The noise of people shifting in their seats. The beeping from watches in the audience at the top of the hour. The breathing of the conductor. Sometimes it’s the absence of sound. People NOT talking or unwrapping candies or applauding after a movement. It all adds to the experience.

Watching the Fifth Symphony live, I noticed for the first time how important that eighth note rest is to the theme. Dun dun dun dunnnnnnn is actually {rest} dun dun dun dunnnnnnn. And you’d see the conductor jab out with his baton, meeting nothing but silence until an eighth note later. I’m having a hard time describing it, but to me it was like he was stabbing a knife, and the theme was the result of that initial stab.

I love going to geek movies on opening night. Watching them with a throng of like-minded people. The laughs, the gasps, the responses in general. The applause at the end. It all makes that experience more impactful.

When I walk into a room where people are bickering, I can sense it. Maybe it’s the body language or the facial expressions. I don’t know. I often feel like I can tell when someone’s fighting even in the same house as me. It’s hard for me to describe, though it’s enough that it makes me believe there’s something to auras, whether it’s a spiritual explanation or something else.

Anyway. I’ve gone on long enough now, and captured some of what I was trying to say, so I’m going to call that a win and move on. I hope some of you were able to go to the performance. It’s not something that happens locally very often. Many thanks to the New Commons folks for making it a reality.


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