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Why is it good to crowdsurf at Handel concerts?


Dr David Glowacki is a highly-respected research fellow of the Royal Society, and expert in non-equilibrium molecular reaction dynamics – no, me neither – but is also our newest, and arguably most unlikely, musical hero after being ejected from a performance of Handel’s Messiah for, wait for it, crowd surfing.

London’s Metro newspaper reports that the artistic director at Bristol’s Old Vic had encouraged the audience to “clap or whoop when you like, and no shushing other people” in order to make the atmosphere more “accessible and informal”. Dr Glowacki’s ejection is therefore sad for three reasons.

First, it illustrates how classical music gigs are nothing like as lively as they used to be. Fights in the auditorium appeared to be de rigeur in the early years of the 20th century.

In addition to the well-known riot at the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, there was similar trouble at a 1905 performance of Richard Strauss’ Salomé; a 1917 performance of Erik Satie’s Parade; a 1923 performance of George Antheil’s Ballet mécanique; a 1923 performance of Erwin Schulhoff’s Ogelala; a 1923 performance of Edgar Varèse’s Hyperprism; a 1926 performance of Maurice Ravel’s Chansons madécasses; and Stravinsky himself was a victim twice over, since a 1930 performance of his Symphony of Psalms went down no better than did the premiere of Rite in 1913.

Second, the research shows that the currency of calm in the stalls is partly the reason why classical music gigs are not so much fun. In common with emotional reactions to most other things, music produces a stronger response if it is more arousing.

There is a clear arousal-based component to the most common strong reactions to music, namely shivers up the spine, tears, laughter, goosebumps, racing heart, quasi-physical feelings (e.g. “I was filled by an enormous warmth and heat”), and intensified perception.

A heightened state of physiological arousal, that would intensify reactions to the music, would only be accentuated by a loud and active auditorium of the type that the Old Vic clearly doesn’t really want.

Third, any comedian can tell you that there is money to be made in giving people a good time, and live pop music continues to prosper because it understands that intuitively: it does everything it can to get a physiological reaction from the audience via light shows, dance moves and thunder flashes.

Classical music has of course tried to steal some showbiz sheen from pop, but this has tended to involve lip gloss and cleavage or the occasional firework: the package always leaves me feeling like an elderly uncle trying to dance at a wedding disco, rather than feeling that I’m at a vital event.

Just as with pop music, if you want sombre reflection then play the music on iTunes in your study, but if classical music is serious about getting punters through the door then it needs to learn how to party.

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