Fan Fare

Entertainment behind the scenes

Time to make concert halls more democratic?

February 25, 2010

It’s an age-old conundrum. Should members of an audience move from the cheap seats to the better ones if those with the prime view remain empty during the performance? You didn’t pay for them, so bums off. They’re empty, so why not?

The issue arose the other night when Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman gave a sold-out, all-Chopin recital in London’s cavernous Royal Festival Hall, which has almost 3,000 seats.

Two young Greeks -– call them Ajax and Diomedes, after heroes in “The Iliad” -– took it upon themselves to seize two empty seats closer up. They were cheeky, slipping into the empty seats before the concert began, with every chance the rightful owners would show up. But Greeks  -– so Homer tells us -– have never been bashful.

At the interval, two ushers -– dub them Hector and Paris -– hovered over the Greeks, as Trojans would, informing them they must go back where they came from.

The concert, after all, was sold out and people do arrive late -– though as late as the interval is pushing it. Having to shoo away interlopers to seat paying customers is very disruptive, especially for a concert in which Zimerman tended to glare at the audience when anyone sneezed or coughed.

But if seats aren’t going to be used, does it make sense they go empty for a rare performance by a pianist recognised as one of the world’s great interpreters of Chopin?

The classical music world wants to reach out to the younger generation -– the existing audiences are largely greying and greyer. But young people have less money, so if they go to a concert at all, they buy cheap. And being young, if they see a chance, they seize it -– or make a try.

In our sample case, luck, or the Fates, and in any case Zeus, in the form of the white-maned Zimerman, was on the side of the Greeks. He strolled back on stage to start the second half of the recital. The Trojans withdrew, leaving the Greeks in possession of the prized seats.

“They (the ushers) told us these are the rules,” said Ajax, whose real name is Alexandros Drosos, 20, a student of music composition. “I couldn’t afford more expensive tickets but he was one of the pianists I’ve wanted to see for a long time.”

His comrade in arms, Dimosthenis Anagnostopoulos, a student of economics, had choicer words for the Trojans -– but then Greeks would.

The management for South Bank says the policy in effect for a sold-out evening was to keep people in their proper seats to allow for latecomers, and there’d been a complaint that the students were disruptive — although from at least one spectator’s viewpoint they looked like they were totally absorbed in the playing.

The particular incident aside -– and it is used to illustrate the issue and not to single out a particular concert hall or institution -– should the classical music world -– and theatre owners in general –– follow another famous Greek precept and become, in a way, more democratic?

If a seat remains empty, is it fair game? Or must it remain empty, its tone-deaf upholstery soaking up Chopin? That avoids the rustle and bustle caused by seat-changing Greeks who, after all, may have bought economy with an upgrade in mind. But it does nothing for the appreciation of music.

What do you think?


Anything that might disrupt the performance should be avoided. Someone showing up late and having to ask someone to leave their seat would be disruptive. It’s seems a waste, but if I did pay for the expensive seats I would not want any disturbances.

Posted by Potatoe1 | Report as abusive

Having been on both sides of the fence I can understand the feeling of the college students, but they should have waited until after intermission to claim empty seats.

Posted by fsrzion | Report as abusive

Yes, perhaps the two men should have waited until yhe interval before taking the apparently vacant seat. However, if one has paid for any seat in a concert hall it is obyious, and basic good manners to arrive in plenty of time. It is also in one’s best interest to do so. Latecomers should be made to wait until the interval anyway to avoid disruptions of any sort.

Posted by Mudshark | Report as abusive

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