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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Should audience members be asked to hold their applause between movements at symphony concerts?

November 25, 2011 at 6:24 AM

We all know that people sometimes applaud between movements at symphony concerts or recitals. But what should we do about it? Should there be a note in the program, or an announcement made from the podium, that audience members should not applaud between movements? Or should the applause be permitted?

I'm often inclined to say, what the heck, let people show their enthusiasm, let them applaud.

But I received an e-mail this week that made me think about that stand. A reader had been to a concert in which clapping occurred between all four movements of a performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, including right after a gorgeous Adagio movement. It was so startling that even the conductor found it disconcerting.

There is an argument to be made for the silence between movements. Live music involves the creation of both sound of silence. For 100 people onstage to wind down to a spellbinding silence in front of an audience of several thousand is an art, and perhaps that silence should be held sacred. One person can so easily burst the bubble. People are so keen on creating an "accessible" experience that is friendly and casual, but what if everyone dresses up and behaves? Does it make it a more moving experience, a more special experience? Maybe it does.

But not everyone would agree. Alex Ross, in his blog, The Rest is Noise, says that the no-applause tradition is only a recent phenomenon. He advocates applause: "If I want to contemplate the music in perfect silence, I can listen at home," Ross says. "In the concert hall, I want a communal experience, and applause is one way I feel the presence of fellow listeners, form a common bond with them. "

This, too, is an excellent point, and he backs it up with good historical fact.

What are your thoughts on this controversial matter?

From Sue Buttram
Posted on November 25, 2011 at 7:28 AM
I'm a singer as well as a string player. When I put together a set of songs to sing in recital, I am often using the last note of one song to lead me into the next. In a symphony or a string quartet, often there is an attacca into the next movement. At these moments, applause is disconcerting at the very least. I find it best to print something in the program and then, work with my accompanist or the other members of my string quartet to not let down between songs or movements to thwart that applause. But it's a lot of work.
From Erika Burns
Posted on November 25, 2011 at 7:51 AM
I know I'm one of those people who appreciate the silence between music as both a performer and a listener. The question really has to be, is this applause from ignorance, or a sincere appreciation.

I remember two performances--Sarah Chang playing Tchaikovsky, and Mark Kaplin and Yael Weiss playing the Kreutzer sonata, where the entire audience broke into applause (and a standing ovation in Ms. Chang's case) after the first movement. Both times were exhilarating for us audience members! But often in the various university recitals and concerts I attend, someone starts applauding tentatively, as if they know they should applaud at some point.

In my very humble (...hmm...) opinion, what is more important than allowing or banning applause is perhaps a more consistent trend in introducing pieces from the stage. A brief explanation will do wonders to help an audience (who neither reads or has program notes) understand the work.

From Christian Vachon
Posted on November 25, 2011 at 12:02 PM

This brings up something interesting to me: in the past, if the audience did not applaud after a movement, it was considered an offense to the composer and that the work presented was not of good quality. I don't know if my memory serves well, but if I do remember correctly, the applause after the Scherzo at the premiere of Brahms' Fourth Symphony was so great that the movement had to be repeated then and there.

Personally, I don't mind if the audience applauds, especially if they are enthusiastic about the performance. It is almost disconcerting to play the first movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto and have a silent audience after such a heroic effort. That said, last summer, I had the experience of having the audience so into a performance that we gave at Victoria's Passion for Tango Festival that they applauded after a fermata in the middle of the piece, early on in the concert. We were so happily surprised that it just made us play better. It was an electrifying moment somehow.

My own very humble opinion...


From Paul Deck
Posted on November 25, 2011 at 2:29 PM
Does your audience have the clap? (That is my term for an audience that applauds between movements.)

The concert program could include a little text box that says, "These days everyone knows it's customary to refrain from applause between movements of a larger piece and then cheer wildly at the very end. But it wasn't always so! In the days of Telemann, audiences discussed each movement among one another for a few minutes before the next was started. In Beethoven's time, they got an extra round of drinks!" It doesn't need to be true, it just needs to be amusing.

Concerts intended for families are teaching moments, and this is something kids need to learn. So those audiences should be instructed from the podium.

From marjory lange
Posted on November 25, 2011 at 2:54 PM
It depends on the piece, doesn't it? Some symphonies are made of individual movements, while others seem to be one single piece with long pauses. In the former, applause, though a bit distracting to concentration, isn't damaging to the overall music, but with the latter, the interruption breaks the flow (who applauds the "To be or not to be" speech in Hamlet?).

There are times when a soloist does something so spectacularly wonderful that applause is almost inevitable, but, like grade inflation, it's a slippery slope from that to applauding at every gesture (also the way operas were done in the past--when a well-sung aria received demands for an immediate encore, to the complete dismantling of the opera as a whole.)

From Jim Hastings
Posted on November 25, 2011 at 3:52 PM
I voted "should be told not to." I favor printing this instruction in the program; but for patrons who don't read it, the raised baton to start the next movement would probably be enough of a deterrent. Over time, let us hope, patrons should catch on.

About dressing up and behaving: I've long held that casual dress and good behavior -- plus good grooming -- go well together and can do a lot to create a more accessible experience. I'm all for clearing out the stuffy snobbery -- without compromising good standards of public behavior.
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Picking up on Sue's experience as a singer and Marjory's points about opera: I don't feel that applauding individual pieces or movements is nearly as damaging in symphony or chamber music as it is in opera. In theater, applause can easily reduce musical drama to the level of operatic recital.

In this regard, Puccini's scores can be a real problem. Case in point: Act I of La Boheme -- the back-to-back arias, one for lead tenor, one for lead soprano. Following the tenor's hand-off line -- "Now you've heard my story; please tell me yours" -- I find the applause that cuts these two pieces apart and delays the soprano's reply, often for a long interval, most annoying.

From Nicole Stacy
Posted on November 25, 2011 at 6:09 PM
I'd vote if I thought those were really the only two options. I believe that most people naturally know when it's appropriate to applaud, and having artificial "rules" -- real or perceived -- not only screws with that sense in the audience, but can be utterly deflating to the artist or group who has just played something really rousing and the only response from the house is maybe a stifled cough. Ideally, if there is a need to refrain from applause, I would try to maintain obvious visual cues like tension in the body language. My policy would be to tell them if you really have to, but say a brief word ahead of time, and presume their intelligence. Otherwise they'll feel scolded and condescended to.
From Eloise Garland
Posted on November 25, 2011 at 6:44 PM
I prefer not to applause - it seems strange applauding before the end of the whole thing. Once a piece is over, and for me that's including all of the movements, then that's the time to applaud. Never before. I like to listen to the whole lot. :-)
From Millie Bartlett
Posted on November 26, 2011 at 1:23 AM
Yes, I think this is an area where the preference or not of receiving applause, needs to be indicated to the audience at the beginning. I haven't had the opportunity to attend many sessions in the last few years, so I was surprised when I sat through the movements of a travelling octet (who played sensationally I must add)and nobody applauded until the very end of each piece. The problem was it was played for what sadly turned out to be a smallish audience, so that the rather large breaks between movements became uncomfortable silences as people looked around to see if they should applaud. I even saw a raised eyebrow or two from the players, as though they expected applause at various points. I don't know why it happened this way but I expected it to be modern phenomenon. But please, if you'd rather no applause, give the audience a chance to understand and say so at the start. Otherwise the silences just feel strange.
From enion pelta
Posted on November 26, 2011 at 5:43 AM
A thousand people experiencing the magic of silence, holding their collective breaths, and feeling the last notes fade from the hall together is quite the communal experience. A society that can have this kind of group experience is one that is truly evolving for the better. applause, i think, til the entire experience is complete.
From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on November 26, 2011 at 4:20 PM
Reading the other comments reminds me of a story I read a long time, so don't know all the details: there is some famous piece that has a long pause in it that confuses people into thinking it's time to clap when they shouldn't. This piece was often played at some festival (possibly the Saltzburg Festival). In-the-know audience members delighted in shushing the clappers very loudly and animatedly. When I read this story, I was struck by how the shushers seemed to be more ill-mannered and disruptive than the clappers.
From elise stanley
Posted on November 26, 2011 at 8:46 PM
I do see an argument for holding off applause - most importantly that a piece is all its parts.

Three points: often the soloist (in particular a string instrument) has to retune between movements and the orchestra often has sounds of adjustment - page turning etc etc - these too are breaks and I'd rather hear clapping.

Second, its futile to ask the audience to not show appreciation - and a bit counter productive. Someone is going to clap anyway - its best to just go with the flow and let the appreciation show.

Third - contrary to being emotionally disturbed by inter-movement enthusiasm, I am uplifted by it. As mentioned above, I feel a fellowship in the audience and a verfication that my appreciation is mirrored by others. And in that other universe where I became a superstar violinist I am sure as a performer I would feel exactly the same way.

Indeed, I'm most interested what the solists here feel - are they distracted or uplifted (or unaffected) by such enthusiasm?

From Mary Carlson
Posted on November 29, 2011 at 1:12 AM
I like the silences between the movements. However, I have never been offended by the audience applauding when we have done a good job. If the conductor doesn't want them to applaud then he should announce it at the beginning. People generally do not read their programs.
From Sue Buttram
Posted on December 1, 2011 at 8:11 PM
I'm inspired to submit another comment on this thread because of a recent performance. Last Sunday, Joshua Roman performed all six Bach Suites. We got a dinner break in the middle. It was a spectacular afternoon and evening. When he finished playing the first Prelude of the first suite, you could hear a pin drop - everyone including Joshua, was holding their breath waiting to see if someone was going to applaud. No one did. Everyone began to breathe again and the concert continued. It was great fun!

Another performance I went to last year was at Seattle's Benaroya Hall with Itzhak Perlman playing and conducting a "mostly" Mozart concert. Many in the audience were there to see the star, probably haven't been to many such concerts before. There was applause between after each movement of the first piece. I think there was an intermission after that, and then Itzhak came back out and said he'd had a conversation with Mendelssohn backstage and he asked that we all refrain from applauding until the end of his symphony. It was said in a humorous way but the audience learned.

Just my two bits...

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