There have been a couple of articles in this weekend's Guardian concerning the way in which Classical music is presented and the way in which the audience attends. This round of discussion has been prompted by the well-respected composer Jonathan Harvey suggesting that the manner in which concerts are presented and attended should be revolutionised. Here are some thoughts of my own about the current situation, in aphorised form.
As classical music is an acoustic art, the audience will be in direct contact with the performers, i.e. in the same room. Consequently the audience have a vested interest in minimising extraneous noise - the ideal is to sit in silence - to allow the music to be heard to its best effect.
The nature of acoustic art means that it is live. Consequently, there will be extraneous noises, mistakes, variations in the manner of performance and the in the general 'atmosphere' of the venue. This should be seen as in the nature of the experience. Toleration is necessary.
Tolerating the natural invasiveness of extraneous noise in a live performance is not the same as tolerating the variable concert-going intent of others. So:
If a concert-goer sneezes, or their chair squeaks on the couple of occasions that they move in it, though these may disturb, they are involuntary. The intent of the concert-goer is authentic, i.e. their attention is directed at the concert. This should be tolerated. In my opinion, even if a mobile phone briefly rings because someone's forgotten to turn it off, this is also excusable. We've all forgotten to turn our mobiles off once in a while.
Conversely, voluntary disturbances are pretty difficult to tolerate. If a concert-goer talks, eats, rustles a plastic bag or sweet wrapper then the intent of the concert goer is not authentic, i.e. their attention is not on the music. Crucially, of course, this inattentiveness is made clear to others in the audience by interfering with others' apprehension of the music - it's noisy.
However, one must appreciate that an audience may be utterly absorbed by a performance and so have both involuntary and voluntary reactions to the music which may be somewhat unsatisfactorily categorised as 'atmosphere'. Delight, astonishment, boredom, wonder and disgust come in all forms, and often noisily (laughter, yawning, gasping, grimacing). Again, such reactions demand toleration if they're honest. The audience member yawning loudly and repeatedly in order to bring attention to their boredom, rather than as an involuntary reaction to being bored is intolerable.
Above all reactions, the most familiar is applause. Applause has two functions.
Firstly, applause is a courtesy in a concert hall, both to welcome performers to the space and to thank them for giving a performance.
Secondly, applause is an opportunity for release and appreciation on the part of the audience.
The opportunity for release offered by applause should not be overlooked. Quiet concentration on a performance carries with it its own low-level strain which requires some sort of release. A common complaint in modern concert halls concerns the amount of coughing that falls between movements of classical pieces. This is often not only a release for those who have tried to hold their coughing during the performance but also a natural release for all in the absence of general applause (it's a generally observed modern affectation not to clap between movements of a classical piece).
In the same way that no-one wants a classical performance marred by noise, so no-one wants the live nature of a performance stifled by people trying too hard not to cause a disturbance. The effect is directly equivalent to mediating the performance with amplification (for example): the apprehension of the music is no longer direct but mediated in some way.