David Lister: The Week in Arts

How to look after those bums on seats
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The Independent Online

Congratulations to that excellent conductor Sir Mark Elder. The congratulations are not just for his recent knighthood, though that is, of course, well deserved. What left an even more lasting impression on me was a short interview he gave this week in The Independent about a concert he was conducting for the City of London Festival at St Paul's Cathedral.

Asked what music he had chosen for the event at St Paul's, Sir Mark replied: "I have put together a shortish programme because you don't want it too long – it gets cold and there are no public loos."

That might strike many as pretty trivial stuff, but I suspect it is a cultural first. It is certainly the first instance I can remember of a classical music programmer taking into account the number of toilets and the temperature of the building in making his aesthetic choices. In other words, he took into account the comfort of the audience as well as the artistic considerations. I call that pretty radical stuff.

The comfort of the audience does not always have so high a priority. Did Trevor Nunn, when he directed the doomed stage version of Gone with the Wind, consider the audience's comfort in sitting on theatre seats for three hours and 40 minutes? Why did the Royal Opera House in it multimillion-pound refit do nothing about the atrocious leg-room in one of the most expensive parts of the auditorium? Why are all West End theatres not fitted with air conditioning?

These are matters not discussed in polite cultural circles. Discussion tends to be focused on the work on stage or the quality of playing in the pit. And that is how it should be most of the time. But it is not easy to appreciate that quality in discomfort. That is why Mark Elder should be applauded for considering the comfort of his audience, not just in a general spirit of inquiry, but in matching the artistic programme to what is a comfortable length of time for spectators.

It was not the only thing in Sir Mark's comments that struck me. After talking about the physical comfort of the audience, he moved on to the physical comfort of the conductor. He discussed a facet of the art of conducting that maestros tend not to talk about. He said: "When I conducted Parsifal, which is a very long opera, I did the whole evening in one shirt. You don't break sweat generally in Wagner, but when you are conducting Italian music, it's much more of a visceral and athletic experience."

I'm surprised. I'd have thought that Wagner's stirring "The Ride of the Valkyries" was a two-shirt job if ever there was one. I want to know more. If Wagner is a one-shirt job, how many shirts is a Puccini? And what of our home-grown composers? Does Harrison Birtwistle necessitate an extra visit by conductors to the gentlemen's outfitters? And does the propensity for shirt-changing vary among conductors? How many shirts does Simon Rattle pack when he is due on the podium? These are things the culture lover needs to know. I will not again be able to attend a concert or opera without wondering during the interval whether the conductor is ripping off his shirt back stage.

We should be grateful to Sir Mark. He has shown that culture, even in a rarefied venue, even with a programme of classical music, is a matter for the body as well as for the heart, mind and soul. It is not just about orchestral excellence. It is, without wishing to sound too Churchillian, about toilets, temperature, sweat and shirts.

I don't see the joke

The Culture Secretary Andy Burnham got into hot water over remarks he made about the director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, pictured, having "late night, handwringing, heart-melting phone calls" with the MP David Davis. Quite what he meant I don't know, but it attracted an awful lot of coverage.

One event that, by contrast, went totally unreported was a recent ICA fundraising gala that I attended. One of the best guest speakers was Ms Chakrabarti. She was followed to the stage by the comedian Harry Enfield who opened his address with a couple of lewd remarks about Ms Chakrabarti. It may have been in a "funny voice", but it was far more overt than anything that Mr Burnham may have said. The cultural elite in the room, TV controllers, artistic directors, actors and fashion designers, did not seem to be at all shocked by this. In fact, they roared with laughter. They need not worry. I won't name them. Not today, anyway.

* There seems to have been precious little news this week from the Edinburgh Film Festival. Indeed, few people will know that there is a film festival on at all. I can't help but wonder if the decision to move the event from August to June this year was the right one. The organisers felt that in August the main Edinburgh Festival and its world-famous Fringe distracted attention from the film festival and gave potential audiences too many other attractions.

That's one way of looking at it. I would argue that there could be few better times to hold a film festival than in August in Edinburgh. The press is certainly in town. There are literally hundreds of thousands of visitors, and culturally there is the chance to cross-fertilise with the wealth of theatre, music, art and comedy going on across the city. What a daft decision it was to leave all that behind.