’Wow’ is the correct response to Mozart

Paul Wells: Every performance could stand to be more relaxed. Explain patiently why silence is part of the modern tradition of this music. And then accept any reaction, and welcome everyone who took the trouble to show up.
In this May 5, 2019 photo, the Handel & Haydn Society performs its rendition of Mozart’s "Masonic Funeral" at Symphony Hall in Boston. When they finished the piece, a youngster in the audience blurted out loudly: "WOW!" The organization has mounted a search for the kid it’s calling the "Wow Child" ‚Äî not to reprimand, but to offer a chance to meet the conductor. (Chris Petre-Baumer/Handel & Haydn Society/AP)

Wolfgang Mozart was not quite 30 years old when he finished writing his Masonic Funeral Music in the fall of 1785, and he had barely six years to live. The piece is six minutes long, rarely performed anymore, a straightforward and mournful funeral march at a slow tempo. It ends with a trick Mozart liked to use, one musicians call a “Tierce de Picardie“: the whole piece is in a minor key but the final chord is major, an unexpected ray of hope.

On Sunday Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society (established 1815) played the Masonic Funeral Music at that city’s Symphony Hall. Just after conductor Harry Christophers led the fine little orchestra through the last note, a little boy’s voice broke the silence: “Wow!”

The kid had broken the mood in charming fashion, and the hall burst into delighted laughter and applause. The orchestra promptly launched a manhunt, so to speak, for the “Wow Child.”

Now, anyone who’s been to a classical music concert knows there are rules—well, if not rules then at least strong and mysteriously widely held preferences—about when you’re allowed to make noise. And nobody ever explains them to you. But every hall is full of humourless undercover pro bono silence cops ready to make a citizen’s arrest if you get it wrong. So the orchestra was careful to note that they liked this outburst, coming as it did in the safe zone a few seconds after the musicians had finished their business.

And on Thursday, the Wow Child was found: It was nine-year-old Ronan Mattin, whose grandfather Stephen Mattin had driven him to Symphony Hall from the family’s home in Kensington, N.H., an hour away, for the concert.

(One of the details I love about this story is that Grandpa had to work to get Ronan to the hall. Another of those details: The concertmaster of the Handel and Haydn Society is violinist Aisslinn Nosky, from Nanaimo, B.C. That’s her with the red hair in the photo with this story.)

Anyway, Mattin explained to reporters that Ronan is on the autism spectrum and “often expresses himself differently.” Often he expresses himself by not saying much: the “Wow!” was atypical. “I can count on one hand the number of times that [he’s] spontaneously ever come out with some expression of how he’s feeling,” Mattin said. Ronan now has friends for life at Symphony Hall, and will be back to hear the orchestra, at their invitation, soon.

One of the oddities of this whole business is the unmistakable note of relief in so many discussions about it. In the odd cult of people who spend many nights sitting in front of symphony orchestras, there’s a lot of talk, sometimes amused and sometimes exasperated, about the more infrequent visitors who don’t know the rules. The rules are simple: Listen in silence. Coughing, crinkly candy wrappers, even whispered conversation is a no-no while the musicians play. And the weirdest part is that even when they stop playing, sometimes you’re not expected to clap.

Many classical pieces are divided into movements, long contrasting sections that sound like complete pieces unto themselves but are, in the composer’s mind, a connected whole. The convention for the last century or so is that audiences don’t applaud between movements. It can feel weird: dozens of musicians are up there working their hearts out, and hundreds of spectators listen stone-faced, sometimes for longer than an hour, before offering any acknowledgment of any of it. Lots of people, having sat through the ritual and perhaps clapped at the “wrong” time, prefer to stay away rather than risk repeating the catastrophe.

Perhaps it would help them to know most musicians are crestfallen whenever anybody feels unwelcome at a concert.

Look, there’s a reason for the conventions around silence: playing classical music is hard. It’s a game of almost infinite nuance. The musicians have spent pretty much their entire lives getting to this point, working harder than most of us can even imagine to master their instruments and their idiom. And it’s not quite true that the ceremonial circle within which this music happens is ruined by noise. It’s closer to the truth to say that it’s enhanced by a common agreement that everyone present will listen attentively. The rules aren’t really that hard. Basically, until the conductor drops his arms and turns around to face the audience, you don’t have to clap. And while you’re not clapping, the feeling of being part of this blessed bubble, safe from the cares of the world and their relentless emissary, your phone, is a big part of the experience.

But what the heck. We’re human. I’m good at staying quiet but I’ve also had coughing fits at concerts. Sometimes you need to cough. There’s a legendary recording of Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould playing Brahms at Carnegie Hall in 1962. Bernstein comes out and explains that he doesn’t like the tempos Gould has chosen—how fast it’ll go. But he finds Gould an interesting guy, so they’ll play it Gould’s way, and they do, and what struck me the first time I heard the recording is how loud and restless the audience is. Coughing like it’s flu season. It’s often seemed to me, when I visit New York City, that Manhattan audiences have more genuine affection for music than audiences elsewhere, but also less reverence and sometimes not a lot of simple respect. But musicians still dream of Carnegie Hall.

As for the clapping thing, I think there’s a strong recent trend towards not getting worked up about it. Yefim Bronfman, a Russian-Israeli-American pianist who’s one of the best in the world, makes a point of rising from his bench to bow quickly when anyone in the audience claps between movements. To him the display of respect is more important than playing etiquette cop. It’s one reason I like him.

I think one reason everyone was so happy about Ronan Mattin was that he offered a vacation from worrying about all of this stuff. He timed his Wow perfectly. Nothing was interrupted. Nobody’s concentration was broken. And Mozart, who watched audiences closely and used to brag, in letters to his father, about the effect he knew specific parts of his compositions would have on crowds, would have been delighted to hear how Ronan reacted.

Ronan’s way ahead of me. For years I clung to a stupid snobby attitude about Mozart, whose music I found merely pretty, compared to the thornier pleasures of later composers. I finally noticed that nobody else wrote anything remotely like Mozart’s music, which shouldn’t have been the case if what he did was so easy. I finally started to listen. And then worlds opened up inside those seemingly simple melodies. That major chord at the end of a minor march changes everything. Ronan heard it.

There’s a heartening move afoot in recent years for orchestras, theatre companies and other arts organizations to offer occasional “relaxed performances” aimed at people on the autism spectrum. The house lights stay on so it’s clear where everyone is. Jarring transitions are minimized. There might be a designated “chill-out” area where people can take anyone who becomes distressed. Most importantly there’s a reversed expectation about behaviour: the only thing that’s forbidden is to scold anyone else for any reaction they might have.

I think every performance could stand to be more relaxed. Explain patiently, in conversation or in print, why silence is part of the modern tradition of this music. And then accept any reaction, and welcome everyone who took the trouble to show up. Leave shaming and scolding outside, with ringtones and Twitter and attack ads and all the detritus of a hectic age. Inside, a community that welcomes and nourishes. As music does.