March 12, 2010

The Toothpick and the Symphony

Rules and good form not being what they were, you can pretty much wear anything to the symphony these days. By and large people do their best to doff their personages (few have a hat) out of respect for the institution. Being affordably seated myself, I togged up a couple of levels under the nines (I could dwell on the etymology here, for the internet is sorely lacking in an explanation of this phrase. My own guess is a contraction of ‘nigh on’, as in ‘dressed to nigh on perfection’). Still, I was collared and tied, and happily shod in my newly refurbished Bruno Maglis.

Imagine my surprise, among the eccentrics and kooks, to see just how far the finery has fallen for some. Across the aisle, a white-haired and potentially elegant couple had chosen to don anoraks, Reeboks and, much to everyone’s eternal pleasure, were handing out the toothpicks. Obviously their pre-symphony caviar was lodged in the odd molar, and nothing else would do. Having thoroughly scraped and scoured the deepest regions of their oral cavities, the toothpicks were then thoroughly chewed until grey and soggy. Charming. Obviously the ideal preparation for Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

Rimsky-Korsakov

I might have hoped that the offending articles were miniature batons, bought in some kitsch souvenir shop, but no. One had simply to look away. Unfortunately, also in my midst were first-time symphony goers who quelled their apprehensions though intermittent chatter. Perhaps it is a symptom of our times that the young cannot survive for more than five minutes without opening their mouths. All around me there was tension, wrought by not knowing what to do about these uncouth whisperers. Incredulous women, appalled at the ignorance, were furrowing brows and shooting daggers with their eyes; men attempted to suppress the tension by shutting their eyes and wishing themselves elsewhere. The offending couple, of course, did not have the requisite social graces to intuit that they were causing offense, and yet nobody did anything to stop them. This was vapidity par excellence.

After several repeat offences with no checks, I took matters in hand. Reaching a little awkwardly past a few people, I did the job of those more conveniently placed and poked one of the novices in the shoulder, thereafter giving him a finger to the lips and a condescending scowl. It was fascinating to witness the process of emasculation at this point, as the ‘fashionably’ bestubbled victim shrank into his seat. It was just the trick; not a peep more was heard. So, after a symphony of whispers and an unpleasant assault on the eye with a toothpick, I was finally afforded the opportunity of listening, at ease, to the music. Nothing like a rousing bit of Orientalism to round off a manly evening of high culture!

14 comments:

  1. I sympathise completely. I try to go to hear our own symphony, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, play at least once a month....and I have also had the 'whispering neighbours'problem once or twice. Like you, I tolerated it for a little while before signaling a polite, silent "shhhhh!" It always works.
    Sad to say in the UK the dress code is just as relaxed, and I really do wish people would take a stab at donning clothes with a bit more class for their evening out. Understandably in an effort to get more bottoms on seats, opera, concerts and ballet have opted for a 'come as you are' approach to entice the young, casual or boho....and just the plain 'ol regular Joe's. On this respect I'm always sad to see that the number of grey heads in the audience far,far outnumber the multi-coloured plumage of my generation (the 18- 30's).
    I like to dress up a bit when I go,because I...like to dress up, and also because I was brought up in a house where certain standards of dress were to be maintained at all times, and most especially when going 'out' be that to lunch at 'Hadrian's', to church or to the symphony. I realize now that I was pretty fortunate in that respect as very few of my friends feel similarly.A great shame really...how much more atmospheric and glamorous a night at the symphony could feel for everyone if they made an effort.

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  2. I'm shocked not to hear there was a cell phone interuption.

    I'm glad you made a stand, even though it sounds as if you were forced to go out of your way to do it. I think what surprises me more then the rude is the fear people have in saying anything directly to them. Odd. It's too bad you weren't carrying a walking stick, as that would have made for a much more lively ending with a whisper ending "bonk".

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  3. Liath,
    You are a dear and faithful reader. Your comments are always most welcome.

    You were indeed fortunate to brought up properly. That probably behoves you to afford somebody else the same opportunity. I feel a certain responsibility in this direction myself, and will perhaps write on it anon.
    VB

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  4. My Dear Turling,
    Thank you for you comment. I simply passed over the cell phone incidents: don't they go without saying? I'm very glad you mentioned the walking stick, since Mrs. VB has drawn a line about that and we are in 'negotiations'. I will put you down as a vote for my camp. That said, Mrs. VB was arming herself last night, and I chose to intervene at the point where I noticed her rolling her chunky programme into a truncheon!
    VB

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  5. I have tried with my kids to instill some respect for dressing up. They fight and call me old fashioned but I still insist. Sometimes I win, sometimes I loose. I only hope that it leaves and impression in them for the future. I love to go to the ballet and opera and do notice the jeans and untucked shirts. Better to have them exposed to great music I feel than to worry about appearances (as long as they are quiet). You are brave and did the right thing. More courage to me in the same situation.

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  6. Daniel RückenschmerzMarch 12, 2010 at 11:19 AM

    Rimsky-Korsakov is Saddam's (very manly) twin!
    http://www.upi.com/Top_News/2009/07/02/Saddam-expressed-fear-of-Iran/UPI-48591246515765/

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  7. Steven, I suppose children will always resist, but it sounds like you are putting yours on the right path.
    Mr. Backache, I fear the comparison goes no further. See you soon, I hope.

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  8. Ah, but did they clap in between movements of pieces? Surely there was more than the Rimsky-Korsakov on the slate. It is an acquired skill - going to the symphony. But perhaps reading up on etiquette beforehand would have been appropriate.
    Then again I must recount a tale of the same proportions. Many of your readers might not realize that Englishmen and women have the right to be married in the parish church even if they are not congregation 'members' per se. Singing at these events is beyond horrific. You can take the couple and their families out of the Council Estate, but you can't take the Council Estate out of them. Despite some of the issues with the Couple and their Party, the one experience that stands out the most was a fairly large portly couple sitting at one of these weddings mid-ways down the nave. As a chorister I could see all - they had brought their shopping with them. From Sainsbury's no less - three bags full of munchies. Crisps, a few buns / baps, and of course chocolates. They rustled and fussed and munched like cattle for the entire service digging loudly in their shopping bags for whatever they'd bought. Decorum? what's that? No, it's a wedding, like those things you watch on them boxes in the lounge...

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  9. No, no inappropriate clapping. And we were treated to Hilary Hahn and a Prokofiev violin concerto.
    A horrible tale you tell, although I would hasten to contradict you about such generalisations on the people of council estates.

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  10. I would also cast a vote for the walking stick!

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  11. Doctor,

    I add my sympathies and wish to pass on a story a gentler man than I once recounted. Assailed by people clapping even in the respiros in an aria, not to mention between movements, by the standing ovations offered to anything and everything, by the people moving in and out after the start of a performance, the sounds of telephones, chatter, nervous tics, and worse - and the other more or less humorous habits and incidents appurtenant to the young - this man considered whether men were not in fact like elephants.

    So did he recount a story about elephants bought in some East African country - Tanzania? - to replenish the stock. The people in charge, seeking the best deal they could get, bought the youngest they could find. And the younglings, left to their own devices in the wild, took to trampling everything, attacking whatever seemed to them worthwhile, and generally ruining the order of the parks and reservations. Belatedly were the men told that without old elephants to keep the young in line, the young are wont to give in to every impulse of their energetic, forceful, and unsettled natures. They could have no rest themselves nor allow any rest to others.

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  12. Hilary Hahn, I'm a bit jealous! It seems like it was a great concert, this little incident notwithstanding.

    As a child, like Steven's progeny, I hated dressing up, but I've grown to like it much more as an adult, and relish the few opportunities when I'm able to do so.

    While I'm an older sister, and a teacher, I've never been shy in asking people to stop doing something if it's bothering others. I can't necessarily make them stop but it's worth a try.

    I'm glad your wife didn't pop them with the program, although I like that she was thinking about it. :)

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  13. Glad you're taking the time to work back through the pages, Rhubarb. Indeed, it was a good concert, and with distance I'm rather more fond of those little incidents that make the thing storyworthy.
    VB

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