“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” wrote the philosopher Simone Weil in the first half of the 20th century. Now it seems our divided attention is a hotter commodity than ever. Day by day, the things that vie for it seem to multiply. We’re allergic to boredom; smartphones take up so much of our time that new articles about how to make your device less attractive are commonplace.
Public life has adapted to the new constant connectivity. When we dine out, it’s not enough anymore for food to taste good; it also has to look attractive on Instagram, and restaurants are optimizing their decor and lighting for maximum snappability. Likewise, many television shows now have accompanying hashtags for live-tweeted reactions. But at a classical concert, in the time between the lights dimming and the final applause, listeners are typically asked to do nothing else but be present. Crazy, right?
Some companies have tried to make some performances tech-friendly. At the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Casual Fridays concerts this year, the ConcertCue app beamed bite-size program notes to concertgoers’ phones as the orchestra played. Boston Lyric Opera has its perennially hilarious #TWEETSQUAD, which broadcasts pithy hashtagged comments to social media during certain dress rehearsals.
Though a screen would provide an outlet for my perpetually fidgety fingers — my Twitter handle is @knitandlisten for a reason — it isn’t what I long for. After the seats have emptied and the music has faded into memory, I most vividly recall the moments that made me forget about the distractions waiting on my phone, about the ever-bleak news, about the dishes in the sink and the laundry on the floor, and be grateful that I was in the presence of something unrepeatable.
For me, the divide between “enjoyable concert” and “the reason I love music” hinges on the simple question “Does it spark?” It’s about a lingering electricity — a sense that the performers are freely granting the whole of that “purest form of generosity” to their art and craft.
The Handel and Haydn Society consistently sparked in performance this year; there was a jaw-dropping Mozart Sinfonia Concertante with concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky and violist Max Mandel center stage, a delightful Purcell “Fairy Queen,” and a “Messiah” that seemed to fly by in minutes. It was impossible to look away from soprano Synthia Pullum’s passionate flight through Nkeiru Okoye’s “Songs of Harriet Tubman” at Roxbury’s Hibernian Hall with Castle of our Skins, or the four students from ZUMIX who collaborated with composer Gonzalo Grau to perform with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra. When Callithumpian Consort tackled Karlheinz Stockhausen’s madcap happening “Originale,” it brought the audience into another universe entirely, where the laws of human interaction don’t apply.
Extraversion and dramatic flair aren’t necessary to create this connection. Roomful of Teeth’s introspective performance of David Lang’s “the little match girl passion” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum invited the audience to lean in, as did pianist Garrick Ohlsson’s easygoing rendition of a Rachmaninoff concerto with the BSO and associate conductor Ken-David Masur. The world shrank around pianist Yuja Wang as she surmounted works by Scriabin and Ligeti with seemingly Olympian dexterity. When the Latin America-focused Unitas Ensemble lost its entertainment license at Villa Victoria Center for the Arts and refused to call the show off, instead moving lights and chairs outside to perform despite chilly weather, the atmosphere in rehearsal felt charged and ready.
I saw some performances by professionals that were technically solid but left me cold, and some performances by amateurs that ignited. What does the word “amateur” mean but “lover of?” In that sense, all of us should aspire to be amateurs.
When those sparks light up, I feel connected to the past and future, to the performers onstage, to the composers who may be long gone or may be sitting in the audience — and I don’t want to do anything but be where I am. Living in a fractured world, it means something when music pulls me to my center. The performers’ generosity, that feeling of connection: these are the bases of the kind of empathy that can be carried out of the concert hall.
You can search for the perfect #relatable GIF to describe your feelings about an aria, or download apps to connect to Shostakovich’s symphonies. Nothing will ever replace that spark.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.