Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Audiences will stand for anything: Ovations and the shredding of the performing-arts social contract

Newspaper reviewing having become a quaint journalistic subspecialty, reminiscence and reflection bubble up naturally whenever a former colleague in those trenches and I get together. The other day, he and I were talking about the immediate audience "review" of performances that's represented by the standing ovation.

What audiences think they should do if they really, really liked it
Neither of us, I  am bold to claim, was indulging in the curmudgeonliness expected of critics in finding regrettable the near-invariability of the standing ovation nowadays. A rarely encountered level of awfulness apparently must be sunk to for Indianapolis audiences not to stand, it would seem.

I'm far from the only one who used to think of an on-its-feet audience response as "the ultimate tribute" — an honor accorded a performing artist for an extraordinarily satisfying, perhaps even transcendent, display of his/her/their art. Recently, "ultimate" has become significantly watered down. The butts-off-the-seats tribute is in danger of being absorbed into normal concert etiquette.

Why do I  deplore this development? Certainly not because I want to dissent from the collective kudos showered upon any given performance, even on its own diluted terms. No, it's the dilution itself I object to — and the imbalance it brings to what might be called the social contract of performance conventions.

Let's look at the interaction of audience and artist in the order it typically happens. chiefly in classical music, but with a few alterations that apply to jazz, dance, and theater. Performer walks onstage, audience claps in acknowledgment of the entrance, performer responds with a bow, a nod of the head, or (outside the classical realm) maybe a wave and a smile.
The standing O is de rigueur at the ego-driven Oscars.

The custom of the initial bow is significant, though it doesn't apply to a theater or dance performance. It signals the performer's gratitude for the audience's welcome, with the briefly lowered head indicating the artist's humility and promise to live up to the audience's expectation.

The applause at the end of the show or a piece of music conveys the audience's approval. The performance has lived up to its end of the bargain. The subsequent bows from the stage are like the old-fashioned epistolary close, "Your humble and obedient servant," shortened over time (up to the email age) to "Yours." The performer leaves the stage, and the social contract has been upheld, neither side in the other's debt.

If there's great audience enthusiasm, the performer returns for a "curtain call" (and here's where theatrical presentations contribute a phrase to the legacy, as there's no curtain to open and close at the end of a concert). Today, a curtain call is almost certain to take place with the audience standing. A subsequent curtain call often draws from the performer a hand-over-heart gesture, like Kirill Gerstein's last weekend after playing the Rachmaninoff Third with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Clearly, someone is smilingly struggling to end the exchange of mutual regard. There was no encore, and the pianist later tweeted that he didn't want to keep the musicians onstage any more than necessary, given the extraordinary length of the scheduled program.

(Encore hell was long ago rendered by a New Yorker cartoon, showing a smiling violin soloist, his instrument tucked under his arm, standing in front of a symphony orchestra. He addresses the audience: "Thank you very much. Years ago I got to know a little piece I've loved for many years, and I'd like to play it for you now. It's called the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, and it goes something like this.")

The more common the practice of standing ovations becomes, the less obvious it is that the performer has done anything extraordinary. Audiences these days are all too willing to go over the top, like those eager folks who solicit your help by saying "Please" and "Thank you" in the same communication.

When standing ovations become common, the performer is simply being overpaid. The artistic ego tends to be large enough not to mind any such imbalance. But eventually, that ego may be justified in supposing uneasily: My thanks to them for their kind reception  — bowing — is an empty gesture. Beyond letting me know they feel their time and money have been well-spent, they obviously want to tell me that what I (and countless performers before me) have done is among the peak entertainment experiences of their lives!

All the world over, a Himalayas range of peak experiences keeps being thrust up, each summit shouldering its neighbors and being that much less impressive on its own.

Publicists drink this kind of thing up, of course. I get countless press releases boasting that so-and-so's performances have elicited standing ovations every time. Bully for you, Mr. Divo and Ms. Diva! Trouble is, such acclaim is becoming not much different from puffing: "Audiences have clapped their hands for Mr. Portamento at concert halls on three continents!"

The public being the fickle animal it is, however, a love-hate relationship sometimes emerges. The social contract may get ripped up before anyone takes the stage: Some rock acts (I've read) cultivate an atmosphere of edgy hostility to their fans.

Other performers develop a persona that acknowledges applause only on their own terms. At the end of the turbulent 1960s, I saw Miles Davis drive the crowd wild at the end of an Ann Arbor concert by scowling and lifting a raised fist as he led his band offstage. I think the fans felt flattered. I'm not sure why.

Dave Brubeck: Wanted to 'Take Five'' in his own good time.
Members of other audiences may feel free to try changing the set list from their seats. It must be in the fine print on their tickets. At Steve Turre's recent Indy Jazz Fest tribute concert to hometown hero J.J. Johnson, the trombonist's introduction of a tune with the same title as another jazzman's more famous tune elicited a demand for the latter. Turre patiently explained that his presentation was meant to focus on Johnson, and would continue to be so devoted.

At the second Indy Jazz Fest — the one doomed by a downpour that left the fledgling event awash in red ink — Dave Brubeck was engaged to play indoors (luckily) at the Indiana Roof Ballroom. After about the second number, someone called out: "Play 'Take Five'!" The normally genial Brubeck declined, and proceeded to lecture the concertgoer on the desirability of attending a jazz festival with the expectation of hearing something new. Of course, the band later played "Take Five." Brubeck had surely planned to include it all along.

Bobby Bland: No truck with a demanding fan.
Another time, a rock critic colleague at the Flint Journal dragged me along to hear a local auditorium concert by Chicago bluesman Bobby "Blue" Bland. After a just few songs, well enough received but apparently unfamiliar to some fans, a man stood up and called out: "Bobby 'Blue' Bland, play the songs everybody loves you for!" Bland smiled tensely at the interruption, led his band through one more song, then motioned the musicians offstage. The house lights came up. That was it.

The social contract between artist and audience had been shredded into confetti and set ablaze — along with most of the ticket value. It was my first and so far only exposure to a standing-muttering-and-leaving ovation — without much actual ovation.

You've been a great audience. Thank you and good night. And don't bother to get up.