Of Silence and Concerts

Konzerthaus Dortmund and Reinoldikirche

Photo: Konzerthaus Dortmund with Reinoldikirche in the background

Sitting perched above the orchestra during the rehearsals and performances of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky at Konzerthaus Dortmund, I had the recurring thought:

This is irreplaceable.

I don’t mean the composition itself, though it’s glorious. I mean rather the entire experience of sitting in a concert hall and listening to musicians playing for an audience in real time. I mean the sea of sound coming from specific people and everywhere all at once. I mean the sheer effort by both performers and audience members to be there together in an act of reverence for the experience itself.

And let’s be clear: the audience is also working. They pay for tickets, but the music we play nowadays is not easy. This Prokofiev piece is challenging to perform, but it’s also hard to understand without multiple listens. Beyond the dissonant passages, the melodies themselves are often treated like recursive Leitmotifs. They are often introduced well before their main introduction in a kind of reflection of the future onto the past. How can an audience know these things in advance? They can’t.

Instead, they need some time to reflect.

The tradition of reserving applause until the end of a multiple movement work has become controversial in recent years. It’s argued that it intimidates new audience members by creating a set of rules to follow. Instead, it’s argued, audiences should be allowed at any moment to show their enthusiasm by cheering and applauding after each movement or even during, much like modern rock or pop concerts.

I understand the concern and desire to make it easier to attract new audience members, and I’m certainly against ever treating anyone with disdain if they applaud outside of traditional places. Nevertheless, I’m still a fan of the silence. Setting aside the difficulty of convincing someone to be the first one to consciously break tradition, the willingness of a large group of people to hold back and be with one another in silence is part of what makes the experience unique. Compared to the hysteria and random outbursts during televised singing contents, I’m perfectly happy with this ritual.

Secondly, it is a part of the effort put forth by the audience to understand and appreciate a work. It’s counterintuitive, but complex music is oftentimes not emotionally comprehensible until its absence. The change in silence itself cues us to the musical journey on which we’ve been. It serves as a reference point. Have you ever noticed that the moon looks larger when it’s near the horizon than when it’s in the middle of the sky? It’s not. It just has a reference point.

Silence is that reference for music.

Chandelier hanging in Deutsche Oper am Rhein

Photo: Chandelier in Deutsche Oper am Rhein foyer

For that effort, the audience receives an experience that is wholly ephemeral. At the end of a concert, there is no cardboard box with the shrink-wrapped concert inside. There is nothing that can freeze a moment of music. Live music is gone as soon as it is created. It is a sand painting being created during a wind storm.

And no recording can capture the experience adequately. There are no pre-amps, gold tipped cables, bit rates, mic placements, ribbon microphones, or processing equipment that can capture the sound of live classical musicians, especially if they’re in an acoustically vibrant hall. No surround sound system can reproduce the sound of a widely spaced orchestra in a hall that sends sound at you from every direction. The sound of live musicians, each with instruments that are perfected to produce that single sound, is too complex. Too much color. Too much dynamic range. Too much.

Each audience member receives something different for that unique ephemeral experience. As I wrote before, we love music, but the manifestations of that are different for each person listening.

Personally, I receive sheer joy from hearing great music, and I do my best thinking while sitting in a concert hall and listening. My thoughts form a turbulent ride of associations as a consequence of the music. Listening to the various climaxes and lulls of Alexander Nevsky, it came to me that I’d only get to experience this a few times in my life. I had managed to live 31 years without ever hearing this piece before, and who knows when I’ll get to hear it live again, let alone sing it? I considered what pieces of music I’d never hear nor sing, and I was grateful for the chance to hear and sing this. 

I could sense the passage of time. Highlights came and went, and once gone they seemed distant though separated by only moments. Minutes. No rewind. Only forward. The musical journey we were on together could be vaguely grasped and related to our own ephemeral lives. Barreling forward. Irreplaceable. Full of moments that cannot be re-lived. Of themes that trade dominance, die and abruptly return. Clues from the future that were unseen at the time. Lost or illusory resolutions and temporary climaxes that trail off with no clear ending.

And finally. Silence.


  1. Christine says

    You´re a great, great writer! Contact a publisher, Operaworld or whatever. More people should be able to read this….

    • says

      Thanks, Christine! I’ll consider trying to find additional outlets. In the meantime, a Facebook “Like” can help more people read it.