This fall I bought season tickets to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra for the first time.
Rachmaninoff Symphonic Classics
● WSO, with bass-baritone vocalist Phillippe Sly
● Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
● Centennial Concert Hall
● Tickets $39-$99 at wso.ca, 204-949-3999
At first I was excited. The (A)bsolute Classics and (B)eyond Classics series have a fantastic lineup and I felt proud to be able to support a local arts organization.
That feeling did not last long. The novelty of my purchase eventually wore off and I found myself faced with a lot of anxiety. What if I clap in the wrong spot? Was it wise to spend so much money on something I might not even enjoy? Is classical music even relevant anymore? And — most importantly — what on earth do I wear?
I’m no stranger to western art music (also called European classical music, or just classical music) by any means. As an unpopular high school student, I played French horn in the school band. If hadn’t become a writer I would have likely become a professional musician.
Still, playing classical music and attending a classical music concert are two different things. What was I so afraid of? Was anyone else as nervous about attending the symphony as I was?
Naturally, I turned to social media and created a very unscientific survey to find out more.
"We were forced to go to concerts in school," said Kimmy Martin, an actor and front-of-house staff member at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. "The best part about it was the bus ride. There’s just so much anxiety surrounding attending the orchestra, I don’t even know where to start. Like, when do I clap?"
At the theatre, a great joke or beautifully sung note can illicit cheers and applause from the crowd. Recently at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s closing performance of La Bayadère, a soloist received a standing ovation from several members in the audience right in the middle of the solo.
To do this at the symphony would be a faux pas. There is a long-standing custom not to clap between movements. So, when do you clap? The WSO website has handy frequently asked questions and provides helpful answers.
"Many works in classical music have three or more movements or sections," the FAQ reads. "It has become customary over time not to clap during these short pauses. You will know the piece has come to its final conclusion when the conductor lowers his or her baton onto the music stand, pauses, and slowly turns to the audience."
"Classic composers were real people with real problems who were just trying to figure life out. They danced, they mourned, they played, they celebrated, and they wanted to tell their story. I really believe that classical music will come alive again. It’s really not so inaccessible." - Sarah Jo Kirsch, soprano vocalist and music interpreter
Nobody I spoke to could tell me more about this custom or whether it had the desired affect of enhancing enjoyment or had the opposite effect of making audiences feel more passive and less engaged. Whether the custom will change is anybody’s guess, but in the meantime, there are plenty of other things to worry about.
"I still feel as though there are unwritten rules," says Charmaine Bacon, who has been attending the symphony for more than 20 years and occasionally performs with them as a flutist and organist.
She recently took some friends to a concert at the WSO for the first time and they thought it was too highbrow.
Most classical concerts are firmly rooted in tradition, although the WSO does offer a wide variety of programming including Pops and BMO Night at the Movies.
But Bacon notes that change is slowly taking place on a national level.
"I recently attended the Edmonton (Symphony) Orchestra where there was more diversity with many young people in the audience," she says. "They had loads of volunteers helping at every entrance and who were eager to talk with you about the concert, which made me feel so much more comfortable."
There’s just one thing Bacon isn’t quite comfortable with: what to wear to a classical concert.
"I remember attending concerts as a student," she says. "I would dress up but I often saw some of my professors wearing jeans and a hoodie."
Once upon a time, attending a live performance meant putting on your best outfit. These days, most institutions agree that casual is key.
"Most concertgoers come in business or business-casual clothing," reads the WSO website. "You might prefer to be a little more dressed up, especially if it’s a special occasion, or you might prefer to be a little more casual. It really doesn’t matter what you wear as long as you enjoy the music."
Ultimately, whether you’re rocking a hoodie and some denim, a smart dress and heels, or a prom dress, it seems that arts organizations are just happy you’re there... especially when getting a ticket can be the biggest challenge of all.
"How can I justify spending money on something that I’m not even sure I’ll like?" says Martin. "I just can’t afford to take that risk."
As arts organizations begin to prioritize both physical and financial accessibility (the WSO offers both student tickets for $15 or a season pass for $85 as well as rush tickets available on the day of the concert as long as it’s not sold out), there remains many barriers in place beyond the financial — including the lack of diverse representation in classical music.
"It’s shifting now, but it’s quite startling when you really look at it," says Sarah Jo Kirsch, a soprano vocalist and music interpreter. "You find a handful of women composers and even fewer composers of colour who managed to publish despite the resistance, but it wasn’t easy."
Even for the composers who faced none of these barriers, it can be difficult for contemporary audiences to relate to long-dead composers in the same way they relate to modern musicians.
"Classic composers were real people with real problems who were just trying to figure life out," says Kirsch. "They danced, they mourned, they played, they celebrated, and they wanted to tell their story. I really believe that classical music will come alive again. It’s really not so inaccessible."
The WSO’s season of classical offerings features some well-known names that are easily accessible, including Rachmaninoff (Russian, big hands, terrified of change), Beethoven (German, very sad, great hair) and Dvořák (forward-thinking visionary but also kind of a thief).
"Dvořák was fascinated by folk music, the Indigenous sounds born of a particular landscape," explains Kirsch. "It was his connection to our primal instincts that made his music feel so good. He famously proclaimed that the future of the American sound was in Indigenous and black music. He saw the future back then."
Dvořák’s land-inspired music and his vision of the future is at odds with Rachmaninoff, who notoriously despised the music of his generation — he was born in 1873 and died in 1943 — and instead wrote in the Romantic tradition of Beethoven’s era even while music of the Jazz Age was taking over.
"His music has juicy, tension-filled harmonies with lots of push and pull, big sounds and tons of pedal," Kirsch says of the composer, whose music headlines tonight and Saturday’s WSO concerts at the Centennial Concert Hall. "He was such a monster improviser with gigantic hands and had a penchant for the lush and chewy."
Rachmaninoff was a relatable person, despite being 6-6 and having written impossibly difficult concertos to play on a piano. His first symphony received poor reviews and he didn’t compose again for many years until he made breakthroughs in therapy. Honestly? Same.
The year 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth and the WSO has multiple concerts planned in his honour this season.
"Beethoven was a super insecure dude," says Kirsch. "He didn’t publish anything until he turned 30 because he was constantly comparing himself to Mozart."
This weekend I’ll attend my first classical music performance in a long time. I’m still nervous, but a little less so knowing that everyone — professional musicians included — are just as confused as I am.
And if you’ve never been to the symphony before, take a risk. Buy a rush ticket and try it out. Trying new things is scary — even Rachmaninoff didn’t want to. But if I learned anything from my unscientific social media survey, it’s that nobody knows what the right thing to do at the symphony is. We’re all just confused people, gathering together to share a moment in time that will never happen again.
Updated on Thursday, October 17, 2019 at 10:15 PM CDT: Fixes typo