To Clap or Not to Clap – Welcoming the Gauche

October 21, 2010 at 9:00 am | Posted in Concerts | 1 Comment
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“The spirit’s foe in man has not been simplicity, but sophistication.”  – George Santayana

“There is more sophistication and less sense in New York than anywhere else on the globe.” – Don Herold

Sophistication in overrated; in all aspects of life in my view, but particularly when it comes to the arts and their audiences.  My fellow musicians and I are (perhaps painfully) aware of the conventions of etiquette required at musical performances.  Most of these rules are quite sensible.  If you arrive late, enter the hall at a clear break in the performance.  Don’t carry on a conversation after the performance has begun.  Turn off your cell phone.

Then there is this important rule. Never applaud between movements of a multi-movement work.  This last rule is well known to musicians and regular consumers of classical music.  But it is not well known outside that circle.  Many is the time I have observed some musicians and (especially) some regular audience members scoff and snort at the poor unfortunate spectator that bursts into clapping at the familiar end to the first movement of a symphony or at the end of a movement that doesn’t really act like the end of a movement.  A barely audible “tsk tsk” echoes around the hall, often with great embarrassment to the guilty party, who is really only guilty of enjoying the performance enough to actually be enthusiastic about it.

This is particularly common at performances by famous soloists (who, by the way, have developed very gracious ways of appreciating and responding to it).  My wife and I are symphony subscribers.  We go frequently.  We go when the house is full.  We go when there is a football game down the street and the seats are empty.  There are a few concerts a year however, that draw large numbers of what might be called “amateur” concert goers.  It’s true you can spot them.  But they are excited to be there and they are much more engaged with the performance than most of the “regulars”.  So, when Yo Yo Ma or Joshua Bell is in town, the house is packed, the electricity is high, and there is applause between movements.

I am also a devoted listener of Sirius Satellite Radio.  There are a few classical music options on Sirius.  One is called “Sirius Pops”.  This is a misnomer though.  The station really doesn’t play pops music.  There are no show tunes (they are on another station).  There is no Liza Minnelli or Frank Sinatra (they too are on another station).   What they do play on Sirius Pops is 1) some of the more popular classical works and 2) single movements of larger works.  It is this later that fills the bulk of their broadcast day.  Indeed, they do not always play the most recognizable movements.  They simply allow for listeners, who are often in their cars, the ability to hear more music in smaller bites.  I have heard a number of my musician friends bemoan this as an abomination.  Multi-movement works MUST be played in their entirety.  Anybody who wants it otherwise is a Philistine.  To be sure, there are some works that I personally don’t enjoy unless I hear all parts of them: Mozart, Beethoven and Mahler Symphonies, The Barber Violin Concerto, The Dvorak Cello Concerto, Abbey Road.  But I would much rather a casual listener have access to a single movement of any of those at the expense of the proper sophistication than put those listeners off completely by insisting that they devote the next 40 minutes to a work.

To be fair, I also know a number of musicians, some of whom are conductors, who are perfectly content to allow time for an audience to show their appreciation as often as they like.  After all, they realized that their competition is Netflix, the game down the street a jazz club in Broad Ripple or even really bad pop music.  Anybody that has decided to have that musical and cultural conversation rather than just going with the flow of “the market” of entertainment options deserves the benefit of the doubt.  For they are a point along a line of handing down culture from generation to generation,  Each performance, recording and music lesson the casual consumer takes part in is one more link in passing that culture along.  An audience of unsophisticated Philistines is, first and foremost, an audience.

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  1. I have no problem whatsoever with applause between movements if the performance warrants it. Rarely do composers specify an immediate segue to the next movement, and if they do, it is up to the conductor to strike a pose that warns the audience that this is not the place for a pause, whether for applause or just moving around to stretch (both for musicians and audience). If you like what you hear in the first movement don’t feel the least bit self-conscious about applauding!


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