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Concertgoers: Mind your manners


When it comes to booking artists to perform at the world-class Weill Hall, the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University has earned high marks.

But when it comes to audience etiquette, the reviews have been more mixed. Applause at the wrong moments and high-tech gaffes can annoy performers and patrons alike.

When the Santa Rosa Symphony led by conductor Bruno Ferrandis trailed off during the final note of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in March, the spell was broken by a jarring, electronic noise.

"Someone's phone went off for an extended length of time, clearly audible through the delicate, quiet ending," violinist Marcia Lotter said. "Bruno was entirely livid."

As the center gets ready to launch its second season on Sept. 15, we checked in with experienced concertgoers and etiquette experts to help guide patrons through the maze of awkward issues that can arise.

Lisa Mirza Grotts runs her own etiquette business, the AML Group of San Francisco, and is acutely aware of the problems that can occur, especially in the sensitive acoustics of a place like Weill Hall.

"A classical music concert is not a rock concert. ... You don't talk or take photos," she said. "The main obligation of the patrons is to observe silence so the music can be heard."

Even the slightest murmur can be heard around the hall, so a candy being unwrapped can sound like the shot heard 'round the world.

Although patrons are reminded to turn off their cellphones, some blatantly check texts during concerts.

"The tiny LED light is visible," said Jessica Anderson, associate director of marketing for the Green Music Center. "When the house lights are down, you don't want to look at it at all."

A more delicate problem involves hearing aids. Many folks turn them up for the concert but cannot hear the noise they emit.

"That high-pitched sound is so loud," Grotts said. "An usher or someone in the audience has to tell them when it happens."

Lynda Smith of Petaluma, who sang in the Santa Rosa Symphony's "Titans of Opera" program in December, noticed that the audience was confused about when to clap, breaking into applause in the middle of a Verdi aria.

"You will know when to applaud when the conductor drops his hands," Grotts said, adding, "Calling bravo is OK, but yelling or whistling is not."

Anderson said that the center is trying to use the printed programs to educate the audience about applause. But there's subjectivity to the topic.

"A lot of artists take the approach that the applause is a compliment," Anderson said. "But there are other concerts when you need that silence in between the movements."

When in doubt, take a cue from your usher and other audience members.

Dress code is another sticky wicket and can vary depending on the time of day and musical genre.

"If it's an evening concert, think about more professional attire, like a coat and tie," Anderson said.

It's also polite to tuck your purse under your seat so it doesn't trip anyone, remove your hat so it doesn't block the view and keep your arms at your side.

Because the seats encircle the Weill Hall stage, nearly every audience member is visible to everyone else.

"Public displays of affection are all distracting, and they are really out of place," Grotts said.

Also, you should never sit in a seat that you didn't pay for, even if it was left empty.

"If you paid for balcony side, don't sit in center orchestra," Grotts said.

Concertgoers should try not to leave their seats in the middle of the performance, unless they feel a coughing fit coming on.

At the end of the concert, it's best to wait until the applause ends, the artists take their curtain calls and the encores are over before leaving.

In an effort to get to their cars first, some patrons fly out the door early, leaving the rest of the audience fuming.

"Please, you've paid this money, so just enjoy it, especially if they are giving you encores," Smith said. "Sit for an extra 5 or 10 minutes."

Patrons who want to let the traffic die down can go to the Prelude restaurant for a glass of wine. It's also a good idea to get to the hall early, in case you encounter delays.

When the back wall of Weill Hall is open, there is a second, more relaxed set of etiquette rules for the lawn. Patrons are free to eat and drink, move around and talk — in hushed voices — during the concert.

<i>You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.</i>