When I was about 20 I attended a high Anglican church service for the first time. I took myself off to Christ Church St Laurence not for spiritual reasons but to hear the Australian premiere of a Renaissance mass. It was fascinating and beautiful. Musically satisfying too – Neil McEwan runs the best parish choir in the country. But it was also daunting.
Everyone around me knew what was going on, while this birth-certificate Anglican who’d been attending a Baptist church in Sydney’s bible belt hung onto the order of service [you can tell where this is going] for dear life and concentrated very hard on standing, sitting, and generally responding at all the right times. (Genuflection was a whole ’nother story. Oh boy!) Even with a musical background that included singing masses and exploring the acoustic potential of plainchant in the stairwells of the Seymour Centre, I found it hard-going. The whole thing was uplifting, but slightly discomforting at the same time. Still, something must have been right and CCSL saw me again, many times. I ended up joining the Evensong Choir and still revel in the mysteries of the Easter and Christmas vigils. (Ok, the something that was “right” had a lot to do with the music, but the music wasn't all.)
I can imagine that attending a orchestral concert for the first time as an adult (children enjoy a different kind of introduction at a stage when they’re used to being bombarded with new things) could be a lot like my first high Anglican experience.
In all this I’m not saying that an orchestral concert is a religious experience, although many concert-goers could probably point to an intensely “religious” moment from some point in their musical lives.
But there are certainly parallels with the religious service: a dedicated building (the concert hall), the high priest at the altar (conductor on podium), the acolytes (musicians), the sacred text (the score) handed down from on high by the creator (composer), the hushed and respectful silences, the ritual participation of the congregation (audience) in fairly set ways at set times, the relatively sombre formal garb of the performers so they don’t in their individuality distract from the object of worship.
Also, and this is an important one, I think, there is the sense of joining with a community of like-minded worshippers (concert-goers) all focussed forward on the same thing (the music), even as one is alone. (I say “alone” because, even if you’re with companions, there is little to no social interaction during the performance itself.)
The church is an ancient thing, but for concerts these parallels emerged in the 19th century as symphony orchestras and formal concert life took modern shape. Whether they’re good for the life and future of the 21st-century classical concert is the important question.
Nerdy postscript: Christopher Small makes for interesting reading on this subject. I recommend his article on performance as ritual in Lost in Music: Culture, Style and the Musical Event (Sociological Review Monograph 34).