In the Audience

The view from my seat.

This weekend was our literary festival and all the book nerds were in town, I love that book-nerd energy. I mostly didn’t partake – for as much time as I spend with my nose in a book, I am (weirdly?) indifferent to the notion of listening to authors read from or talk about their work. I did my part, such as it was, by helping the local library friends set up their author-adjacent event.

Instead of the lit fest, on Sunday afternoon I went to a concert at St. Francis Cathedral, our big downtown cathedral right off the Plaza. One of the works they were performing was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, which I’m very fond of and had never heard live. I’m in no way musical and I play no musical instruments except for piano, badly, as a child, and I view the ability to play any instrument with skill as some kind of sorcery. I am equal parts awe and envy, out there in the audience.

The Lark Ascending, seen in person, was glorious in ways I didn’t anticipate. There is of course something magical about music seen and heard right in front of you. But these weren’t major-investment seats at the Opera House – there were people there just … peopling, you know? Some fussy kids, the dude who kept fiddling with his trucker hat, folks who were there because that’s their regular church or they knew someone in the orchestra. The Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra is good, by small-town standards, but you wouldn’t mistake them for the London Symphony Orchestra recorded live and then worked over with some audio magic for Deutsche Grammophon.

I’m coming for your phone!

The result was less sublime perfection (which I can get in abundance on YouTube music) and a more human experience, the way that I imagine most music has been experienced for as long as people have been creating it. Yes, it’s true, if I’ve paid for a premium seat at the Kennedy Center Opera House I don’t want someone behind me spending five minutes making crinkly noises unwrapping a cough drop. I was once sat three rows behind a woman and her glowing phone screen, and I wanted nothing more in that moment than for a ninja to creep up and garrote her. (I settled for an usher.)

But Sunday afternoon in the cathedral? People fiddling with their programs and their reading glasses and wiggling in the pews just doesn’t bother me. Also, because I’m looking at the musicians and they’re not World Class Musicians, it allowed me to see and pick apart the sounds and how they’re made. In recordings, I can’t separate out what individual instruments are coming together to create what sweeping melodies and soaring musical bits in The Lark Ascending, just that I found it profoundly moving. Seeing the magic happen right in front of me, the pieces of it, was really fun and interesting.

Don’t hold me to it, but I think I’ve gotten more tolerant of the people around me, post-lockdown. I’m happy as hell to be in an audience of hundreds of people, listening to a concert, even if some of them forget to turn their mobile phones off or bring kids who aren’t prepared to sit through an hour of Culture in absolute silence.

Are you resuming any of those kinds of activities? (I did wear a mask to the concert since the place was packed, that’s where my bar is set now which I think has some basis in reality – the amount of viral load you’re exposed to in one setting.) Do you like author readings? Would you rather go to the dentist than to a small-town music concert?  Are your audience expectations different depending on how much you paid to be there?

  • Dina C. says:

    What a great concert experience! I also like that piece, but have never heard it performed live. How lucky to have that opportunity. I sing in a small church choir, so I’ve been attending masked ever since lockdown ended. My daughter and I have been season ticket holders for the theatre season at The Kennedy Center for the last few years pre-pandemic. Crowds there are now back to full numbers, and mostly unmasked. The Arts were one of the things I missed most during the pandemic, and I’m delighted to be back seeing shows. We just saw ” Spamalot” on Saturday for the first time — it was hilarious.

    • March says:

      Yes, I too very much missed these sorts of performances! Glad to hear the Ken Cen has recovered. I bet Spamalot was fabulous!

  • cinnamon says:

    Agree that playing an instrument well is sorcery, as is being able to sing well. I sometimes think that if I were given a super power I might choose being able to sing beautifully. I am masking less when out and about but always have one with me so that if I think I won’t be comfortable out it comes. Love music in cathedrals (we have one here) both for the decent acoustics and for simply looking around at architecture and stained glass windows. Tolerance … not really. I get very tetchy about people being in enclosed spaces coughing and sputtering. However, having said all this I did go maskless with Portia at Harrods and Harvey Nicks and felt mostly ok. I did wear a mask on the tube and the train though.

    • March says:

      SO true about really good singers! We have a number of choral groups here and I’m astonished at how good some of them are — we also get overflow from the excellent Santa Fe Opera — younger performers, interns etc. Churches and cathedrals are such lovely spaces to listen to music in. Like Portia below, I’m always on the lookout for those concerts when walking around while traveling, I caught a great classical concert in Dublin that way.


    Lark Ascending is usually voted top of the most popular tunes on Classic FM (radio) every year in the UK (though not this time, I understand!).
    Portia, you should be in Leipzig just now for a week of Mahler symphonies! (Lucky friends from Brisbane are there.)

    • Portia says:

      WOW! Is it annual?

      • March says:

        I googled and this year’s looks GLORIOUS. However, I couldn’t find anything about whether this is an annual event! Looking backward doesn’t help much since everything went pear-shaped during COVID.

    • March says:

      I did NOT know that about The Lark! (I didn’t know there was a vote on popular tunes!) I listen to our local classical enough to know there are clear favorites, though. That Mahler event sounds amazing!

  • Portia says:

    Heya March,
    I love to lose myself at the symphony, no matter the grade. Most music is grist to my mill but Mahler will get me to the venue every time.
    We recently heard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra live (made famous by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). It was so good I teared up.
    There are quite a few local orchestras here too, we go and enjoy them too on rare occasions.

    Churches are excellent places for surprise events, when travelling if we see signs we go. You’re so right, the feeling is totally different from the opera house. Infinitely more human.
    Portia x

    • March says:

      I know I’ve blathered on here before about how much I love going to see live music (classical more than pop concerts.) I LOVE those church events, if I’m traveling I always pay attention if there’s a sign up for a concert I can pop into later. The combo of old churches and music is pretty great.

  • Musette says:

    I’m somewhere between you and March, Tom – I love that we can, once again, come together to enjoy Peopleing (peopling?)…but in a huge crowd like that I, too, would be in a mask.
    I would be much less tolerant, were I to have paid a bazillion dollars to hear/see something fabulous…and then had to contend with jerks. Perhaps not a Buick…I imagine opening up the arteries in their armpits…
    yeah, maybe closer to you than March, Tom. Just with a smaller weapon.

    • March says:

      Peopling haha I hear people say it but I figure either spelling is fine! And as I said to Tom below, if it’s an expensive event I’m way more likely to try to do something about a disruptive distraction.

  • Tom says:

    I don’t go to those things mainly because after the lockdown I have zero tolerance for jerks in the audience. I used to just silently wish a messy death on people who talk or text or unwrap 3257 layers of xtra-krinkle Saf-t-wrap of their mints but now I think I’d actually have to hit them. With a Buick.

    So I stay home and watch YouTube. It’s for the best.

    • March says:

      LOL sounds like staying home is the right choice! I’ll reiterate that if I’ve paid big dollarz I’m more likely to be irritated (and act on my irritation.) And/but I’m still in the honeymoon period of being thrilled to be back in a group of large people, doing a thing.