Running With the Classical Crowd: A Guide to Concert-going in Israel

Riffle through the program, text your friends, and applaud - but only if you’re going to get an encore.

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The Israel Philharmonic.
The Israel Philharmonic. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

For reasons of my own, I’ve stayed away from Israel Philharmonic Orchestra concerts for years. Recently, though, I decided to depart from my custom and make the trip from Haifa to Tel Aviv in order to see Murray Perahia play and conduct the IPO in an ultra-classical concert: Bach, Haydn, Mozart.

Perahia played well and conducted proficiently, but the essence of my experience at the concert lies elsewhere. What I learned from that evening is that the way I listen to classical music is deeply flawed. In my naivete, I would go to a concert, take my seat, listen, applaud and go home. In my folly, I wasn’t familiar with the vast riches of the accompanying activities one can indulge in at a concert that can augment the classical music experience. I became acquainted with those activities during the concert in Tel Aviv, and as a public service to other innocents out there, I will note them here.

1. Joking around: Laughter is good for your health, and if there’s one thing the IPO’s geriatric audience needs, it’s good health. What, then, could be better than exchanging a few witticisms with the cashier when your turn to pick up the ticket you reserved finally comes? The fact that the people behind you have to wait is for their own benefit – haste is from the devil. The true devotees continue the tradition of the witticism with the usher at the entrance to the hall.

2. Hunching over: Some people arrive early, others tarry. In some cases, the latter have to get past the former to reach their seats. It’s important for the early birds to hunch over in their seats and not get up or move their legs or push aside the bags they have placed in the narrow passage. If the latecomers trip and fall – they’re just getting what’s coming to them: Who told them not to come on time? The beautiful part of this leaning over routine is that you can repeat it at the intermission and sometimes even at the end of the concert.

3. Talking: I knew that talking before a concert and during the intermission is permissible. You can ask whether Perahia is a he or a she, for example. You can claim that Murray is really Mordechai and that the fellow is actually an Israeli; you can talk about stuffed fish and about the ex who called up out of the blue. What I didn’t know is that you don’t have to stop talking just because the orchestra has suddenly started to play. You can continue to speak quietly (or not so quietly), and if you have something to say in the middle of the music, don’t be shy. This is a democratic country, right?

4. Texting: I was under the impression that it is customary to turn off cell phones during a concert. In my naivete, I didn’t realize that it’s enough to mute them. You can then take advantage of the boring passages of the molto adagio (“molto,” as the woman sitting next to me explained, is “middling” in Italian) to send and receive text messages and also to take calls (after all, it’s not the other party’s fault that you’re at a concert) and even answer them – see: “Talking.”

5. Giggling: The IPO’s audience is a refined group. They know all the Haydn shticks, and if not, they read about them in the program (see: “Riffling”). So, when the big boom of the Surprise Symphony arrives, no one is surprised, but everyone enjoys the joke. To express their delight, they all laugh loudly and in chorus. This is known as interactive classical music.

6. Riffling: What about the poor wretches who don’t have a smartphone with which to text, or lack friends to text with? That’s why the program notes were created. For a modest sum, you can buy a lovely glossy pamphlet of ads that you can riffle through enthusiastically during the concert to help dispel boredom.

7. Coughing: Boisterous coughing, throat clearing and sounds of group retching during the breaks between the movements of a work are an honorable tradition in Israeli concert halls. The refined audience already knows better than to applaud in these breaks (and if anyone dares to applaud he is hissed), so these sounds are its sophisticated way of expressing its appreciation to the musicians.

8. Entering/leaving: We live in a Jewish democratic state, where the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom guarantees every Jew the right to enter and leave a concert freely whenever he wants, and the democratic audience exploits its right to the full.

9. Applauding: There’s nothing like rhythmic clapping before the intermission to clarify to the soloist that we expect an encore and that it’s our full right to get one. If the soloist signals that he doesn’t intend to give one, the applauding stops immediately. Why tire yourself for no reason?

10. Rushing: In contrast to the intermission, the end of the concert is not the right time to indulge in applauding. It’s already 9:45 P.M., and time is pressing. You have to push your way into the line for the beigeleh outside, and wait in the long line of cars leaving the parking lot. Applause can be left for the intermission of the next concert.

Thus I learned that when I, snob that I am, prefer to attend concerts in Paris, Berlin and London, I am missing out on all the extras that customarily enhance classical music performances in the Holy Land. Without them, those sterile concerts in the European provinces are like a wedding without an orchestra, a steak without fries, hummus without a pita.

Dr. Amos Kovacs is a mathematician, a pensioner of the Rafael defense-systems development and manufacturing company, and a self-employed consultant.