When in Japan…

Gulbenkian Concert Hall

Gulbenkian Concert Hall

Are you a Wittertainee?  I mean, of course, do you listen to Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review podcast from BBC 5 Live? I’ve been a devotee of the Church of Wittertainment (as their fans are known) for many years (hello to Jason Isaacs, by the way), long enough to remember way back when they first launched the renowned Wittertainment Code of Conduct for cinemas.

This started out as Mark Kermode’s and Simon Mayo’s not very serious response to the many emails from listeners about the increasing prevalence of bad behaviour in cinemas, but it quickly became something really quite significant.  Our Screen Machine mobile cinema has a copy posted by the entrance, and a few years ago I was delighted to find a copy in a similarly prominent position in one of Berlin’s top cinemas.  The Code starts obviously enough with prohibitions on talking during the film, or using your mobile phone, eating noisy food, or kicking the seat in front. But some items get a bit more esoteric, including: ‘No shoe removal: You are not in your own front room. Nor are you in Japan (unless you are, in which case, carry on).‘

That crack about Japan came back to me during our recent, and first, holiday in Lisbon, where we experienced not one, but two disconcerting examples of audience behaviour, and were left wondering whether each was considered in any way normal in Portugal, and , whether, therefore, we would have been wrong to make a fuss.  In one case we did, in the other we didn’t.  Was either decision correct?  What is the etiquette when forming part of a foreign audience?  When in Japan, should you take your shoes off (regardless of any resulting pungent odour)?

This all started a couple of months ago when, having booked our flights and hotel for Lisbon, I did what I always do on these occasions and searched for what concerts might be available while we were there.  To my great excitement I found that the most exciting young pianist of the moment, Igor Levit, was going to make his Portuguese debut during our stay.  Not only that, but he was going to be playing two of the works from his latest recording which had just won The Gramophone magazine’s Record of the Year Award.  And to put the icing on the cake, the concert was in the Fundação Gulbenkian, just a short walk from our hotel.

As you can imagine, by the time we actually got to the concert hall, my anticipation was intense.  The Gulbenkian concert hall is a lovely wood panelled space, seating, I guess, about 1200, and it was almost full, which was impressive for the demandingly intellectual programme on offer.  We settled down to enjoy the immense hour-long journey that is Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and quickly appreciated that the hall’s acoustic was perfect for a solo piano.  Unfortunately, it was also perfect for making clearly audible something much less uplifting: the utter barrage of coughing that broke out as soon as Levit’s fingers touched the keys, and which then persisted throughout the whole work.  It was rare to get more than ten seconds of cough-free music.  And it wasn’t just a few very sick individuals.  Coughs resounded from every part of the auditorium.  Several would go off at once.  It was like trying to listen to a concert in the middle of a zoo, or the Gunfight at OK Corral (except that only lasted a few seconds…).

We really felt for Igor Levit.  How he maintained his concentration, playing this Everest of the piano repertoire from memory, was a marvel to behold.  As we discussed at the interval, if nothing else such behaviour (no one ever seemed to try to stifle their cough) seemed incredibly insulting to such a great artist.  Yet at the interval the audience had given him a standing ovation!  Perhaps that was just all the non-coughers acknowledging the scale of his achievement….

After the interval things did get better, partly because Frederick Rzewski’s equally monumental ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’ is a more torrential, acoustically overwhelming work than the Beethoven, and partly because some of the worst coughers seemed to have chosen to leave at the interval rather than expose themselves to a late 20th century masterpiece.  But it was still much noisier than the average Moscow winter audience on old Soviet Radio relays from the 60s. I had thought of saying something to a member of staff at the interval, but in the end got cold feet—we were outsiders, after all.  Perhaps this was normal, in Lisbon, in December.

Two evenings later we were at a free recital in the ornate Palàcio Foz in the centre of Lisbon, performed by the Trio Cremeloque, and taking a fascinatingly different approach to familiar Piano Trios of Beethoven and Haydn, with the usual violin and cello replaced by an oboe and bassoon.  It was one of a regular series of free concerts, and the hall was packed.  And even as the musicians started playing, several in the audience (all Portuguese) were busily photographing them on their phones.  The middle aged man next to Judith even starting videoing the concert.  This was too much.  Judith gave him a sharp slap on the arm and he desisted—at least until the encore when the camera was out again, his raised arm blocking the view of those around him.  Yet in between he had seemed intensely focused on the music. Once again the very fine musicians were given a standing ovation—which raised another unanswered question—are standing ovations the norm in Lisbon, rather than the very rare exception that they are in douce Edinburgh?

Lisboans, we found, are immensely welcoming, courteous and helpful people, and it was a delight to spend time among them.  Indeed it is their very reticence and laid back character—certainly when compared with their counterparts in Madrid!—that made these two experiences seem, by contrast, so very odd. But maybe they would find the reverential behaviour of the average British classical music audience oddly cold and uninvolved. A mystery to solve—as if we needed an excuse to return to the delights of Lisbon!

Mind you, sometimes you can really get it wrong.  Many years ago we went to a choral concert in Italy.  We arrived, we thought, well before the advertised start time, only to find the Choir already on stage, singing away lustily.  But the Italian audience was behaving atrociously: chatting loudly, moving about, even eating in some cases.  We were stunned. Surely even Italians, we thought, couldn’t be this badly behaved as an audience. But then, after ten minutes or so, the choir all filed off stage.  It turned out they were just doing their warm up.  A few minutes later they returned in more formal manner, and their performance was then listened to in complete and attentive silence. And no one, as far as I could tell, took their shoes off.

© Robert Livingston December 2016

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One response to “When in Japan…”

  1. pedrol says :

    As a lisbonner feel a bit ashamed about what happened during the concert… I hope you had a pleasant stay in my hometown! Regards PedroL

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