Discarding the Fourth Wall of Classical Music

This summer I’ve been taking a break from my own musicking and taking in other people’s performances and compositions. One concert oddity keeps coming up: the fourth wall.

You may well know the scenario. You arrive early to a concert with high expectations only to be kept in the lobby because the orchestra is “still rehearsing.” Then you’re allowed into the hall only to be subjected to the furious chaos of musicians practicing away, cramming for an event moments away.

The anticipation of an exquisite evening of live music shatters under the cacophony.

Imagine for a moment – you excitedly arrive at a venue for a dance production, but are held in the lobby while “the troupe is stilling practicing.” Once inside you witness a pair of dancers still on stage as they practice a tricky lift, another dancer repeatedly leaps across the stage trying to ace a difficult leap, and yet another couple rehearses their pas a deux.  Absurd! I’d certainly want my money back!

Or – imagine a theater company “still rehearsing”. And while you sit reading the program notes actors practice lines - all at the same time, at that! – on stage, in their own little world, pretending there’s no audience in the room. Absurd and rude!

Classical music seems the only performance art that refuses to accept that music is performed on a stage – a place with unique responsibilities and demands.

The stage is somewhere other than the practice room, greenroom, workshop, or studio. The stage is both a place and an experience between performer and audience. The theater world knows there is no fourth wall between the actors and the audience. (There may be a fourth wall between the characters and the audience, but everyone knows there is no wall.) Classical musicians, however, remain convinced of the fourth wall between them and their audience. Many traditional behaviors even reinforce this point to the audience.

For example, besides the practicing on stage, the first entrances on stage by musicians are usually casual, with attention given to equipment, seating arrangements, music stands, page turns, etc. rather than the audience. Then the musicians’ awareness is directed to a few notes that the musicians play between themselves, for themselves, in that traditional tuning routine. When the conductor appears on stage, the musicians stand – for the conductor rather than the audience! By now, before a note of the musical program has been played, the audience has accepted the idea that the players are indeed behind a fourth wall.

Once the wall’s presence is mutually accepted, it is there for the course of the event. Later, when it comes time for the audience to offer applause from the house, it is directed toward those performers who have remained in front of the wall -  a soloist, conductor, or perhaps composer. Considering the fact that applause is something an audience needs to do, we put an unfortunate damper on their needs very quickly, within the first few moments of a concert.

I can hardly blame musicians for this behavior when I consider the historical context of classical music performance. Musicians have often been an invisible workforce. Either they were considered the anonymous doer who should only be heard or they provided the back drop for a star conductor or soloist. For the most part, musicians could create, or were forced to create, a fourth wall and pretend the audience wasn’t watching or listening because the real show began when the maestro, diva, or virtuoso star entered.

As a conductor in the 21st century, I’d prefer to give musicians an honest stage where they may create a fully-acknowledged relationship with their audience.

One group, St. Martin-in-the Fields treats the stage as a special performance space, and the effect sweeps you into the spell of their music. Pre-concert, the stage is set-up, half-lit and empty of musicians. Everything suggests. The silence and stillness begs for sounds and movement. Then, at “curtain time” out rush the musicians from all sides of the stage, walking swiftly to their place, where they remain standing. They immediately acknowledge the audience’s presence. Then they sit – and bang – the exhilarating wow! of live music fills the room. The pacing is especially effective. Notice the lack of hand-shake and bowing ceremonies. Relegating the tuning process to backstage also prevents the creation of a fourth wall.

The more we keep the stage about the relationship between performer and audience, the more magical.

At a recent concert I sat with a friend, a retired lawyer who frequently attends music, arts, and theater events. During intermission – while the stage was a buzz with string players tackling fast passages, the proverbial trumpet player repeating that one phrase with a large leap, some winds doing fast tonguing passages - I asked him what he thought about this pre-performance noise. His comments were stronger than I expected. “I’ve always wondered why we must be subjected to such crud before we can hear the program. I come to a performance hyped up for ‘on with the show!’ This is just crud.“

Today’s audiences are seeking an experience of live music which engages them with the events and the people on stage. That is – a stage where players and audience fully acknowledge each other’s presence. From here, perhaps we can create a live-music experience that is “worthwhile, unique, and essential” - the goal of live performance as James B. Nicola remarks in Playing the Audience: the Practical Actor’s Guide to Live Performance.

We could learn much from the theater world in regards to the ‘contract with the audience.’ Classical music/musicians seem to relish their distance from the audience. Perhaps this attitude sufficed under a Toscanini or Stokowski with the dazzling spotlight on the conductor. But today’s performers are artists of live music. Let’s give them three walls and a stage worthy of their art.