Off notes: lessons in etiquette for China’s classical music concertgoers
When 27-year-old Beijinger Cynthia Li sat in the magnificent National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) near Tiananmen Square trying to enjoy Mozart’s Flute Quartet No.3 in C major, there were some off-note moments.
“There was always someone in the audience trying to use their camera phone to take photos, using the flash,” lamented the former music student who now works at a luxury hotel in Hainan . “Others were clearing their throats.”
For a musician on stage, Li said such behaviour was akin to the audience “performing its own concert, by sneezing loudly, dropping mobile phones or even cutting fingernails”.
Although concert hall ushers would gently remind the audience to behave, Li still felt annoyed and upset.
“This is the finest concert hall in the country, but if I feel annoyed here, imagine what musicians must endure in smaller cities,” Li asked.
Li’s concerns point to one of the obstacles China faces today as it aspires to be a cultural power.
Deng Xiaoping’s campaign of reform and opening-up in 1978 launched modern China’s rise to prosperity and with it a hunger for culture, including Western classical music.
In the past decade, local governments have spent billions of yuan building grand performance venues across the country that have hosted some of the world’s finest ensembles and orchestras.
Thanks to government incentives and generous corporate sponsorship, more mainland concertgoers can get through the door to enjoy the greats.
In Beijing, the government-run NCPA, which took about six years and more than 3 billion yuan (HK$3.8 billion) to build, hosted 910 performances last year, entertaining 920,000 people.
Western classical music has been known in China since Jesuit priests introduced it to the late Ming imperial court at the start of the 17th century. But it did not make wider inroads until the early 20th century, beginning in Shanghai. The New Culture Movement in the 1910s and 1920s broadened its popularity; many Chinese musicians studied abroad and later at home when the Shanghai Conservatory opened in 1920s.
Music education, especially for piano and violin, is strong among middle-class families in China, as well as Japan and Korea – to the extent that many of the world’s finest classical musicians are East Asian by descent.
Unlike classical music in the West, whose audience is predominantly grey haired, more young faces are being lured to classical music concerts on the mainland.
Classical musicians from mainland China such as composer Tan Dun, and pianists Lang Lang and Li Yundi, have gained international fame in recent years. Thanks to the government’s programme of affordable tickets, an estimated 185,000 university students have seen performances at the NCPA.
But some things haven’t changed. Zheng Xiaoying, the renowned 86-year-old female conductor of the China National Opera House, laments that while the first-class venues have been erected in record time, the concert manners of the rapidly expanding audience have barely changed.
Zheng, who founded the Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra in Fujian, recalled the first performance in China by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in October, 1979.
The venue, the Beijing Capital Gymnasium, was filled with people who had just stepped out from the shadow of the Cultural Revolution. The conductor, Herbert von Karajan, stood on the stage and waited until the whole hall was silent.
“Many people were late, and we waited for a long time,” Zheng said. “Everyone held their breath because we all knew what he was waiting for.”
In Zheng’s eyes, Karajan gave an important lesson in theatre etiquette to the audience: don’t be late, and keep quiet.
After that concert, Zheng devoted herself to passing on more knowledge of theatre etiquette to concertgoers. Between movements of her concerts, she takes a few minutes to explain aspects of classical music to the audience, from the meaning of a prelude to the correct time to applaud.
“I don’t think our audiences are intentionally rude, but they’re not aware of the traditions of concert etiquette,” Zheng said.
In Chinese tradition, concerts were often held in restaurants and teahouses, where applause and cheers from the audience were a sign of appreciation when performers hit a high pitch. In contrast, an audience of Western classical music refrains from applauding until all the movements have been performed.
The lack of national education about Western music also makes it difficult to spread such knowledge to all audiences.
“I taught them the very basics about concert etiquette 30 years ago, but I am still trying to teach them the same thing,” Zheng said.
Ke Hui, a Beijing-based music critic, agreed, saying change would take time and patience.
“They have no knowledge about it, just like jaywalking, waiting in a queue and travelling abroad – these are totally new experiences for many mainlanders,” Ke said. “They need to be helped and guided, by other audiences, musicians, and theatre staff.”
Change, in some places, is under way. Since the NCPA opened in 2007, announcements are made ahead of every concert to remind the audience about concert manners.
The NCPA management also works with Beijing schools in music education and theatre etiquette, providing 1,090 courses to 616,000 people last year alone, according to China Culture Daily.
Some efforts had started to bear fruit, Ke said, especially among regular concertgoers.
“When I first attend concerts at the NCPA in 2009, some of the audience would eat oranges, but we don’t see that anymore,” Ke said.
However, some express deeper concerns.
One Hong Kong classical music lover, who did not want to be named, said that after seeing the China National Symphony Orchestra perform at the NCPA in late April, she began to wonder if it was worth travelling to the Beijing theatre only to suffer from the audience’s bad manners.
During the concert, she observed, some people left after a movement had started, while others kept playing with their mobile phones.
Noises such as zipping handbags, flipping leaflets and loud coughs also left her annoyed.
“The musicians deserve our respect, but as a Chinese, I felt ashamed,” she said. “China has very fine music houses, and governments have gone to great lengths to arrange concerts by leading musicians. Bit if our audiences fail to behave properly, we will lose that edge.”