It’s not a sin to go to a classical concert, but there are some major sins you can commit … Let me rephrase that: Some faux pas can happen that might embarrass you and annoy your fellow audience members. So I’m here to prevent those from ever happening, which is the best approach, because I swear that if one more person talks during a concert, I’m going to go Berlioz on them!
No, "Berlioz" is not an Inuit swear word, but a 19th century composer who often expressed himself at concerts. It wasn’t uncommon for Berlioz to stand up on a chair and yell at the performers. (And worse yet, he was a critic for newspapers in Paris—so his temper would end up in writing too!)
But honestly, if you’re enjoying the performance (and there are many to attend, as you can see by this year’s guide), please share it with your concert companion at intermission or between complete pieces. Nothing is more disrespectful or annoying than to talk (even whispering can be distracting) while the music is playing.
Here’s an interesting fact, though: It was often common to talk during the overture and even ballet music in concerts many centuries ago. Performances were much longer than they are today and could include a symphony, a solo performance, maybe the girlfriend of the conductor would sing a song, and in some cases, a nonmusical act would happen on stage.
One thing that didn’t happen back in the golden age of concerts: cellphones. Please, I know they can be necessary, but when you walk into the building where the concert is taking place, please turn off your phone. Same with digital watches (the alarm does not harmonize with any music, unless it’s a John Cage concert), beepers and any electronics that potentially make you a member of the ensemble.
As for applauding/cheering/clapping/making that "whoop whoop" noise, it’s not too awful to clap between movements, but nowadays it’s preferred to wait until the very end of a piece. I know what you’re thinking, Why? When the Hershey Bears score, I cheer wildly and I don’t wait for the end of a period. Again, it’s just one of those classical etiquette rules.
Looking back again to the past, audiences did give their "barbaric yalp" whenever they heard something they like, and often the performers would respond by playing that movement again! So don’t feel too bad if you clap after a movement; it means you liked it and you are being a bit authentic.
But one small aside: Think about the performance before you give a standing ovation. Did it really make you get up, or are you just wanting to stretch? In all my concert-going days, maybe 10 concerts in about 3,000 have really been so extraordinary. Yet, almost every performance I attend lately ends with a standing O.
So, what should you wear to a concert? Something comfortable. I’ve been wearing tuxes, tails and suits since I was rather young, performing. And I like ties and suits, but they’re just hard to wear here in the summer. Don’t think just because the concertmaster looks like the maitre d’ you just saw at dinner that you need to be dressed up. Then again, if you look spiffy, maybe the harpist might notice you from on stage. My advice is to wear something clean, not wear too much perfume and you’ll fit right in!
Wondering what apertif or icy beverage goes during or after a concert? The Waltz King would have enjoyed champagne, Brahms a good cigar, and pick any Russian composer for a vodka martini. (I might go for all three!) Moderation of course is the key. After all, you wouldn’t want to miss an encore or an autograph chance at the end of the concert.
Stick to these simple standards and you’ll be the angel of the audience, and the perfect patron of the performers, too.