Why do you go to concerts?

I recently attended a Scottish Chamber Orchestra concert my wife was playing in, and it struck me that my experience of the concert must have been substantially different from most of the audience. Of course, it's natural that I should have been listening especially for Jeannie's dulcet tones on the clarinet, but beyond that, I realised that it was impossible for me to listen simply as an audience member: I found my experience as a performer constantly intruded, causing me not only to analyse the performance in great detail, but also to partially identify myself with the players and conductor as if I was in some subtle way participating in the creation of the music. It made me realise that the pleasure I get from listening to a concert is intimately bound up with the pleasure I get from performing. So that made me very curious about the experience of the (presumably) large majority of non-musicians present in the audience. What were they there for? What did music do for them or to them? I could imagine various possible answers (and no doubt there are many more than I imagined), but the question niggled at me so much that at the end I was compelled to ask the man next to me why he had come to the concert. If he thought I was crazy he graciously didn't show it. And the questions are clearly still niggling me because I'm hoping you'll comment below with your own experiences of concert-going. What do you get out of it? The answer can be as simple or as complex as you like.


Firstly let me say I love your CD of Schubert Duets with Paul Lewis. When I say I had no idea Schubert wrote lots of duets you will guess i am no expert! That disc and Paul lewis' Beetoven concertos were my only requests for Xmas gifts. I love music in every form, radio 3 in the kitchen, cds to relax, adore watching the proms on television it's so fascinating seeing hands flying over the keyboard or the lightning bows of the strings. But of course the highlight for a music lover is the live concert. It doesn't matter that i have no idea what they were talking about when Katy Derham or Charles Hazlewood interviewed our favourite musicians. Once the playing starts it is the spiritual experience, the fun of watching the orchestra and the whole buzz if there is a full audience and a great performance. Back to Schubert's duets- it would have been lovely to be at the Wigmore Hall but if I close my eyes the first notes have such a wonderful zing, I could be there!

Posted by Janet Gogerty on 03 February 2011

Hi Steven, good question, got me thinking :) I'm a non-musician and the answer for me is fairly simple, it's about the experience and emotion connected to music. You lose yourself, it's overwhelming & uplifting.

Posted by Stephen on 05 February 2011

Hi Stephen! I was at your Birmingham Town Hall concert last night and just want to say it was fabulous especially the last movement of the Beethoven! I am just embarrassed there were not more people, but I am afraid Brummies only turn out in numbers for big names. As to why people come to live concerts, I think it is simply that the sound is so much more immediate and there is so much more spontaneity. Obviously a cd will always sound the same, We have a large collection which we rarely listen to! Hope to hear you many times in the future.

Posted by Roger Tempest on 06 March 2013

Hi Stephen! I was at your Birmingham Town Hall concert last night and just want to say it was fabulous especially the last movement of the Beethoven! I am just embarrassed there were not more people, but I am afraid Brummies only turn out in numbers for big names. As to why people come to live concerts, I think it is simply that the sound is so much more immediate and there is so much more spontaneity. Obviously a cd will always sound the same, We have a large collection which we rarely listen to! Hope to hear you many times in the future.

Posted by Roger Tempest on 06 March 2013

Hi Stephen! I was at your Birmingham Town Hall concert last night and just want to say it was a fabulous performance, especially the last movement of the Beethoven! A few weeks ago I heard Kissin play the same in Symphony Hall. I am just embarrassed there were not more people, but I am afraid Brummies only turn out in numbers for big names. As to why people come to live concerts, I think it is simply that the experience is so much more immediate - it is the difference between seeing a print of a Van Gogh and the actual painting. The dynamic range of a live performance is so much greater, and there is so much more spontaneity - the occasional fluffed note adds to this! And of course there is the element of gamble and risk – the tightrope element, and the fact that if you don't like the performance you have wasted an evening and a fair amount of money. For this latter reason I would not go to a live concert without knowing something of the repertoire and performer - Youtube and Itunes are indispensable for this. Cds are becoming less relevant - my wife and I are both musicians, we have a large collection to which we rarely listen! Hope to hear you many times in the future.

Posted by Roger Tempest on 06 March 2013

I feel that Music is a journey from here, right here, to somewhere that nobody knows. If only we could find that place. I want to be there, you want to be there, that's why we can share the path, sit next to complete strangers and not care. We all want to be there. It's kind of like the living representation of the urge to fly - unreachable but the idea lives. The better the music, the nearer we come. Going to see music live, is the nearest you will get.......apart from jumping off a cliff.

Posted by Joe on 12 February 2013

Hi Steven- It's an interesting question. I am a (very) amateur pianist who attends concerts frequently. These are the main reasons that I attend concerts: 1. The intellectual stimulation: What will the pianist play, and how will they play it? What ideas do they bring to the table, and is it convincing? This is the music critic in me, I suppose. 2. The emotional experience: An inspired performance of a good piece of music can transport me to a special place, lost in the sound world. For example, a couple of days ago I attended a recital by the young Soyeon Lee (fellow Naumberg winner!). Her "La Valse" was ravishing. The thick murky atmosphere was so vividly conveyed in all its spine-tinglyness... and the climaxes were positively hair-raising. 3. I also enjoy being exposed to new music -- or at least music that I'm not familiar with. Speaking of which, I have you to thank for introducing me to Messiaen (through a couple of your performances in San Francisco) and Kapustin (through recordings). 4. Lastly, with all the irritations of a live audience (coughing, extraneous noise, etc.), it's tempting to be convinced by the Glenn Gould mentality of relegating music to a private affair enjoyed only at home with recordings. But I believe in music as a living art, and I like to support it as such as a patron and audience member. --Charles

Posted by Charles on 13 January 2011

Yes, the answer is complex. Here are some components – 1. Some of the audience – it’s anyone’s guess how many – will have had some experience of playing music, though not at professional level or anywhere near it. I’m probably not all that rare a bird in a concert audience: took piano to Grade VIII as a schoolboy (now 50+ years ago), then other things took over, and I was probably near my technical limit anyway, but it gave me enough experience (including a little as a performer, to school audiences) to be able to recognise and marvel at the skill, both technical and musical of any pianist, and to an extent any other performer too. So you can probably count on some of your audience to be enjoying the white-knuckle ride with you as you play. Indeed, for all I know, some of us may be enjoying it a lot more than you are at on the platform. 2. There is no other sensible way to hear, say Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, than in a concert room large enough to house a full orchestra and absorb its sound. Home hi-fi can be pretty impressive but it’s pale by comparison with the real thing. 3. Some will have come to a concert hoping for the experience of a lifetime, and sometimes they get it, and then will keep on coming back hoping for more. One such, for me, was the first time I ever witnessed a full-blooded rendering of a romantic warhorse – Newcastle City Hall, c.1956, a Sunday afternoon, the Halle under Barbirolli with Julius Katchen playing the Greig. For the soloist it may have been a routine job, for all I know, and the audience was a bit sparse, but it comes back to me still whenever I hear that concerto (not very often nowadays). Another was Birmingham Town Hall, the CBSO under whoever was their conductor at the time, c.1969, with Jacqueline du Pre in the Elgar concerto – that was no routine job, and I have never wanted to hear that work again, simply for fear it will spoil the memory. But such experiences keep one ever hopeful as a concert-goer. I could catalogue more, including some of your own performances. 4. These are perhaps the most positive reasons why people go to concerts, but there are others. One motive is habit, or at the extreme, addiction. For some, it’s a place to go to of an evening, a change from your own sitting room but at least as warm and almost as comfortable. I have sometimes gone to the door of the Queens Hall in Edinburgh, with a ticket, then looked at the crowd going in and thought ‘I don’t want to spend the morning sitting among that lot’ and gone shopping instead. And I have sat in front of people, of a November evening, who plainly had simply come in from the cold and to rest their feet (an evening comes to mind, years ago, in the Usher Hall, where Witold Lutoslawski was conducting some of his own works, to comments from the row behind me along the lines of ‘Ooh, that made me jump’ and ‘It’s kind of spooky, innit?’)

Posted by Edward (Ted) Davison on 14 January 2011

I saw your brilliant performance in Yokohama today, and I happened to think of exactly the same question throughout your concert. I took my two boys(7 and 12 years old) with me and I really wondered how they could enjoy the concert. I myself am an amateur pianist, so I can I enjoy concerts both from the performer side and from the audience side. But, those who do not have special musical education must sometimes bear long, sleepy movements(I do not mean yours). However, my kids seemed to have enjoyed the concert in their ways. I think it was worth taking them because now they know a new world and that beautiful music existed. I suppose that apply to every audience; after all, people are eager to experience new things, aren't they? We go to concerts because we would like to watch and listen to highly professional live performances, and feel the performer's existence in the unique atmosphere of concert halls.

Posted by Yukako on 15 January 2011

Steven, just heard you play Rachmaninov, Ravel and Beethoven in Perth. Loved the Beethoven and was really blown away by the Rachmaninov - hope you'll record it. As a very poor amateur musician I think concert-going is about many different things. It can sometimes be a rare opportunity to commune with the music, to really focus on it to the exclusion of anything else (eg. it's hard for me to find 4.5 hours to listen to Parsifal at home, so hearing it "live" is something special.) There's also the aspect of what you'd have to call "canary fancying" in singing circles: can the performer pull off something that you know is difficult (achieved with aplomb by your good self last night.) I think you also want the performer to bring something of themselves to the music and to communicate that to the audience. Some pianists leave me somewhat cold in concert while others (eg. Argerich, Kovacevich, & Osborne, natch) speak so strongly through their music that this is a vital part of the concert. It's not enough to interpret the music - a great performer brings something else to the stage, which you only get in performance. Finally there's the aspect of really "hearing" the music - it doesn't matter how good your hi-fi system, nothing sounds as good as an instrument being played live in front of you. Come back to Perth soon!

Posted by Dogbertd on 16 February 2011

The reason I go to concerts or just listen whenever I can to music is just simply 'that I MUST' ...It gives me joy, it gives me purpose and like the air I breathe..it gives me life.

Posted by Betty Sekhri on 16 February 2012

I am a non-musician: I can't play an instrument and can barely read music. (Though I tried during my comprehensive school education.) As a result of my musical illiteracy I suppose I'm not there for the analytical approach like my neighbours at a recent concert: "In the 13th variation I just wasn't convinced by the left hand...". I wasn't even counting the variations. In some ways Gould's comments about concerts are true, but perhaps he missed the point. All live events create an anticipation of potential excitement (a buzz, if you like), and with this comes an anxiety around failure - whether it be watching your football team or favourite actor. But it isn't wanting someone to fail, it's wanting to share. In the way you said you were 'subtly participating in the creation' of the music - I would have a similar feeling even though it is patently absurd to say this as a non-musician. For me I guess it comes from feeling energised and / or uplifted by the music - as opposed to an acute analysis of technique, or understanding what the performers are going through. So, I suppose I go to concerts to hear music I know, or see a musician I know, and get just that little bit extra from a live performance - to experience it as an event. To be a witness, in effect. In addition, I go to concerts to hear music and musicians unknown to me and I want the same experience but there is a greater sense of discovery and somehow less tension. It is interesting to write 'see a musician', but I think this is a part of the experience too. As much as audiences' coughing makes me want to smash up the Royal Festival Hall, I enjoy witnessing a musician. I also want to see a 'performance'. (That's why I always wondered about Richter's method of dimming all the lights and having a single bulb shining on the score. I think it probably made him even more of a cultish figure; and made people more obsessed with the man rather than, as he desired, the music.) At the end of the day musicians are performers. But there shouldn't be any fear around this: it doesn't mean everyone has to turn into a showboating Liberace. I've seen a pianist play Dudley Moore's version of a Beethoven sonata as an encore, and another play Schoenberg from the score: both were absolutely riveting but in different ways. A fair number of concerts I go to are mediocre: and on my tube journey home I often think about how many CDs I could have bought with the money. But those concerts that are special, and exceed expectations, live in the memory for a long, long time. After all, people don't say 'I will never, never forget the time I heard XXXX on my CD player.'

Posted by Bart on 17 January 2011

I seek out concerts to be transported to another level of existence, where there is an exhilarating awareness of beauty, life, and possibilities. In my experience, this sense of occasion is less rarely found in solo and chamber music concerts than in concerto, orchestral, and opera performances. I seek out performers who are great communicators, who are not merely performing but also questing. Too many performances are characterized by virtuoso excellence and even original rhetoric but lack joy, inspiration, and a sense that the artist is doing this out of love (something definitely conveyed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Mackerras Beethoven Symphony recordings, especially the winds!). After a lifetime of work abroad, I reside now in the Washington DC area and hope to hear you perform here. Your Rach preludes album is a treasure (up there with Richter and Fiorentino).

Posted by Richard J Adams on 22 August 2011

Music is something I could not live without. One goes on a journey filled with colour and beauty.If you have any imagination you can conjour up patterns and happy events. Although I love to watch the orchestra I am also happy to close my eyes and just happily take my fill. Fortunately for me my music tastes are varied although was not introduced to classical music until I was 30yrs of age. Looking forward to hearing you on the lst March

Posted by Joan Wilson on 27 February 2011