November 25, 2011 at 6:24 AMWe 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 V.com 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?
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.
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...
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.
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.)
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.
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?
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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