Not long ago I attended a superb performance of Beethoven’s C-Sharp minor quartet, one of the great masterpieces of all time. I had been looking forward to the concert, not having heard the work in performance for a long time. The occasion was marred by the lady next to me, who sat through half the quartet reading her program. I was angry, but I was able to suppress my anger and focus on the music by holding my hand up (not exactly unobtrusive, but it seemed the only possible defense) to screen her from my field of vision. I thought her behavior extremely rude and inconsiderate, even though she was not making any noise. (Naturally, she stood up at the end and applauded vigorously, athough she had heard only a small portion of the quartet.) I didn’t say anything, but sometimes I think I ought to have told her how rude she had been, not just to me, but to the performers and everyone else as well.
But would I be right to say that to her? Some people may feel that provided she doesn’t make noise and audibly interfere with the music, then it doesn’t matter whether she reads her program or not; if she doesn’t choose to listen to the music, that is her loss. Other people may insist that they can listen to music even while reading, so how do I know she wasn’t listening? On that point I feel little doubt: she can’t have been actually listening and reading at the same time (many people, I think, overestimate their ability to “multi-task”). That holds especially for the C-Sharp minor quartet, which is a long, complex, and subtle work. No one could truly follow it without giving it full attention. One can, of course, treat it as “background music,” as you can any music at all, but merely having music in the background while you focus on something else is not the same as listening.
There is a further point: I think that one of the things that makes performance special is that it is shared. As an audience member, the experience is enhanced by the awareness that I am not alone; I and everyone else in the audience share the experience. The sense of it’s being a communal occasion makes it very different from merely listening at home to a recording. I think everyone knows what a difference it can make to be part of an attentive, receptive audience (and performers respond to that also, of course). If that is true, I think it confers a responsibility on members of the audience to contribute their part to the shared experience. So the lady reading her program was shirking her responsibility as an audience member. She ought to have stayed in the lobby with her program.