Reforming applause

4 minute read
Yeah, yeah, that was great. (© European Union 2013 - European Parliament)
Yeah, yeah, that was great. (© European Union 2013 - European Parliament)

When you attend a classical music concert, you enter the hall, find your seat, and read the program while eavesdropping on the vacation plans of the rich people behind you. The lights dim. Out comes the concertmaster, and pro forma applause ensues. A tuning note is played. This also seems largely pro forma these days, given the unassailable competence of the musicians. (If this custom continues, oboe players should throw their colleagues a few curveballs, just to make it more interesting.) Then the conductor darts across the stage. More ritualistic applause.

And we wonder why people under 60 don’t attend classical music concerts.

So far, we have been required to applaud, but now, as the music starts, we are forbidden from making any noise whatsoever: no applauding, whistling, booing, or sneezing. We cannot applaud again until the entire piece is over — don’t dare applaud between movements, lest you be thought a philistine. On the other hand, at the end of the concert it has become almost de rigueur to have a standing ovation even if the music is played barely well enough to be somewhat recognizable. This is an annoying custom, and it takes away the audience’s ability to acknowledge truly remarkable performances, which are rare. However, it’s understandable that it happens too much, since listeners are prohibited by the music gods from other expressions of human appreciation. Instead, they are left with one of the most arid gestures in Western culture.

Of course, noisy audience members are an annoyance and can inhibit one’s comprehension of the music being played, but those people will exist no matter what, so why not reconsider current practices? At the premiere of Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique, the audience, frenzied, insisted that the orchestra repeat the “March to the Scaffold.” They did not sit in their seats, hands folded, obediently awaiting the end of the concert — they raised hell. I like that.

A trombonist acquaintance of mine tells a story from a Nashville Symphony concert. Live orchestra music was new to the town, and the orchestra built up a crescendo, followed by a dramatic grand pause, at which moment a woman in the audience yelled, “Woooo!” Her timing was comical, but on the other hand, what could be better for music than spontaneous enthusiasm?

Taking a dive

The stuffiness of the modern classical concert must end, but the music must also be heard. Our best model would be rock performances in dive bars. The band comes out; people cheer, but only if they want; and the show starts. There is little merely polite applause, and the sound of it is a sure sign that it’s a lackluster show. If people want to applaud the music, they do, and if they want to boo, they can. It’s only fair. Where displays of appreciation are encouraged, the full range of reactions should be allowed. Contrast this with the hypocrisy of polite applause at a classical concert. More than once I’ve listened to an audience member destroy a performance mere moments after being on his feet applauding. This is stupid and artificial.

You might think that a rock concert is too unruly, but I’ve been to some where you could hear a pin drop, the audience was that engaged. At the same time, the audience knows when to go crazy. It’s an organic process, based largely on what the music is doing at the time. There are no rules, except that you usually are not allowed to rush the stage or pour beer into a speaker. A similar approach exists at marching band competitions, not that I want to raise such an activity to the highest spheres of musical performance. If the band goes crazy, the crowd goes nuts. If the band purrs a sweet little tune, the crowd shuts up. Maybe I have too much faith in humanity, but I think audiences could manage themselves quite well.

The place to start in the transformation of classical music performance would be to gut orchestra-level seating. Put in a few chairs here and there for people whose feet are tired. The rest of the space should be wide open so that listeners can roam freely, as worshippers do during the Greek Orthodox divine liturgy. The well-heeled can occupy the box seats if they don’t want to mix with the ruck. Put in a hard floor so that spills can easily be cleaned up, and for God’s sake, allow food and beverage inside. People should be allowed to come and go freely — no more taking captive audiences. All expressions of appreciation at any time should be allowed: cheers, jeers, boos, jumping, rolling around on the floor, maybe even dancing. Yes, it will be noisier, but it will also be more fun. If you end up next to someone annoying, you can move, which you can’t do while trapped in one of those heavily upholstered folding seats.

Look, this system isn’t perfect, but I’ll take spontaneity over ritualism at any price. If I want to listen to music undisturbed, I go home and dig out a recording.

To read a response by Tom Purdom, click here.

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