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March 15, 2010

Please, hold your applause until the end

I found much to love in this column in the UK Guardian, an abridged version of a lecture New Yorker critic Alex Ross delivered to the Royal Philharmonic Society last week. Ross discusses the troubling solemnity of contemporary classical music and offers a lively anecdotal survey of the genre's troubling history of applause.

He outlines exactly why I have always felt so uncomfortable in the concert hall. Granted, I'm a pop-rock guy. I'm used to clapping (cheering, whistling, passing out) when the music stops or when the solo rocks. Not knowing most symphonies by heart, I'm never certain whether this is the end of the whole thing (OK, clap here) or just the end of the second part (hands in your lap, young man). Nor am I entirely comfortable with such strict rules on my behavior. The people on stage are making a racket wresting angels and demons from their souls -- I'm supposed to tell mine to shush?

I remember being amazed in school when I'd hear about the rowdy behavior of ye olde concert hall or Shakespeare's Globe. Many such examples are cited here -- the yelling, singing along, talking back -- and how that eventually was curbed. I know we have to draw a line so as not to interfere with a performance, but I wish the line would be drawn between those shout-outs that come from engaging with the music and those that are mere interruptions from the outside world (please turn off all cell phones and pagers). I'd like to think that, even if I were the fourth bassoon, I'd thrill to hear someone in the balcony whoop at the end of the melody or applaud right when they're not "supposed" to.

Ross peaks with this:

During the applause debates of the 1920s, the pianist and conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch said, "It is a mistake to think you have done your part when you buy your tickets." There ought to be more give-and-take between performers and audience, he is saying. Passivity is too easily mistaken for boredom. Performers, for their part, overdo the detachment. American orchestral musicians appear to have taken classes in how to show no emotion whatsoever - with the occasional exception of a slight smirk during the composer's bow or a flicker of a smile during the soloist's encore. Music is an art of mind and body; dance rhythms animate many classics of the repertory. But in modern classical music, the body seems repressed.

So the question is, if you could cat-call the conductor or the first violin -- and oh how they used to -- would you feel more engaged with the orchestral experience? (Do you remark on such breaches in your criticism?) Ross seems to think so, and uses his argument to support a statistic: Given these staid conventions, among so many others, he says, it's no wonder "the so-called Generation X ... according to scary graphs recently published by the League of American Orchestras, has yet to show the midlife surge of interest in classical music that previous generations displayed."

As a lifelong rock scribe, though, I find the other side of this observation equally troubling. Rock concerts are going down the same, genteel (inevitable?) path. More and more, it seems, even with younger bands but certainly with the boomer relics, the fans come to the show, they listen attentively, they applaud politely. The trick at a rock concert isn't learning when to applaud, it's figuring out when to show your raucous enthusiasm simply by -- you rebel! -- standing up (and when you've worn out your fervor by standing up too long, thus annoying the people behind you who've -- gasp -- already sat down again). Depending on the venue, you're often forbidden from dancing in the aisles anymore at a rock show. Forget rushing the stage. Just bob your head, bub.

And hush up.

March 15, 2010 1:49 PM | | Comments (3)


I awoke to the clap-happy history Ross focuses on by S. Frederick Starr's 1988 article for Symphony magazine, "Why I Applaud Between Movements," which I'd suspect Ross references at some point.
To applaud or not to applaud is an issue confronted at jazz performances too. The novice tends to applaud at or near the end of every single solo. And while one wishes not to curb enthusiasm, this can be problematic for a number of reasons, chiefly: the segues into and out of a given solo in jazz are often significant, and the applause threatens or renders inaudible these often subtle moments; nearly any jazz musician can do something technically impressive given solo space and such knee-jerk applause celebrates and even invites easy displays of technique, thus flattening any show of appreciation for something truly original or thrilling. Yet even my accounting above smacks of a troubling elitism, I guess.
And when Ross comments, "in modern classical music, the body seems repressed," I can't help but think of what happens when Afro-Latin music (to which dance is elemental) gets presented in American concert halls and jazz clubs: I've seen ushers scold and herd away audience members who dared to dance in the aisles at a Cuban show. And I felt a cold flat sense of disorientation when Eddie Palmieri's La Perfecta played the Blue Note, where there's barely enough room to move an elbow, let alone dance.

In the age of snark, when no person, place or thing is exempt from Internet drive-bys and social media bitchiness, why should symphonic leadership be exempt. Bring on the barbs.

Generations X-er that I am, I can confess I've been a lifelong lover of classical music (my love of 2001 informed me well enough and it went on from there). My grandfather used to demand that I sit and listen to Beethoven, in complete silence, with him. When he did this with his daughters, they squirmed. But I did I was told (I felt I'd better), and found I didn't mind it so much. In fact, I loved it. This was the other side of pop, but was still the pop of its day and beyond (hard to think that there was a time not so long ago where classical albums would hit the top 40 on a regular basis). I, too, felt uncomfortable at my first orchestral show outing when people didn't clap after a movement. I could feel a certain tension in the audience, and it didn't subside until well into the next movement's progress.

Eventually, when I let pop and rock take over my attentions, I would still find my brain felt better when I mixed it up with some Carl Orff or George Gershwin. Now I routinely mix in classical alongside Liz Phair and Public Enemy on my mp3 players. I like variety, to be sure.

The next time I go see a classical show (which are prohibitively expensive), I'll certainly be going to see a performance of Prokoviev's 3rd Piano Concerto. And after the Allegro, I don't care what the protocol is, I'm damn well gonna whoop it up. My body won't let me do otherwise.

This said, this begs the question: What would John Cage say about this article?

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