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It's high time to reconsider applause at classical concerts

By John Terauds on February 18, 2012

Violinist Sarah Chang

Why are classical musicians and audiences so picky about the right time to applaud?

Most believe that applause spoils the mood and flow of a piece or set of pieces, especially in the case of “serious” music.

Perhaps its time to loosen up.

At Thursday’s Toronto Symphony Orchestra performance, conductor John Storgaards put his hands up to request silence when a substantial number of people in the capacity audience began to clap after the first movement of Sarah Chang’s performance of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1.

He did it again during Beethoven’s Fifth.

In both instances, the music was so energised, so compelling that, if each movement had been an opera aria, everything would have stopped for prolonged applause and shouts of approval.

If it were jazz, patrons would be clapping and whistling even more often — say, right after Chang’s long, searing cadenza (the place in a classical concerto when the soloist gets to showboat for a few minutes).

Thanks to its TSOundcheck programme, the Symphony audience usually counts a good number of people in their 20s and early 30s (who I don’t see at traditional chamber music or solo recitals). They are ready and willing to respond emotionally to — and share the power of — what they are receiving from the stage.

At any non-classical venue, their smartphones would be recording the performer’s every move. They would be tweeting and texting their OMG reactions. They would be yelling and cheering.

So imagine the shock of the classical concert hall, where all must be silent in revering Die holde Kunst.

It’s only been that way since the 19th century (except for some craziness whenever, say, Franz Liszt walked out on a stage).

In the times of Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, audiences weren’t shy about registering their approval or horror immediately. When in love with a piece, they demanded singers repeat an aria, or that an orchestra repeat a movement.

That kind of engagement in a classical concert is anathema to any modern purist. Admittedly, if I could choose my ideal live-performance environment, it would be a silent one.

But I also know that we each have a fundamental need to respond to stimuli. I’ve cried at live concerts, and, on Thursday night, I nearly started to applaud after the first movement of the Beethoven 5 — because it was such a thrilling start to a well-worn piece of music.

I hear time and again from people who are intimidated by the classical concertgoing experience. They think they have to dress up. They think they have to know something about the music before they go.

And, I’m sure, sitting in a seat, trembling in fear that this might be the wrong time to applaud, is also one of the factors.

If Floria Tosca can stop in the middle of a murder scene to take applause and cries of Brava! from the audience, so can Sarah Chang.

I’m more concerned about making sure that new people experience the magic of live classical music than about requesting vows of total silence. I’ve included a video by Tim Lautzenheiser that presents the opposing point of view.

What do you think?

UPDATE: I’m adding some comments I received via Facebook:

  • From violinist Julia Wedman: “I totally agree! As an audience member, I only dress up for concerts if I am in the mood (which is rarely), and I clap between movements if I love something. As a performer, I love the spontaneous clapping, oohs, ahs, and bravos from audience members who are totally engaged in the music and can’t help themselves. It’s one of my favourite parts of a concert.”
  • Violinist Maymi Seiler: “If, as a performer, you cannot feel the electricity in the audience between the movements, it may not be he right profession for you. If, as an audience member, you are not allowed to react to this electricity between the movements, you may just want to listen to music at home instead of daring to sit with the audience who ” knows better” – this would be a sad case of us performers playing to nobody in about 10 years. I personally feel joy in those moments when my audience cannot help but clap. That is live music.”
  • Agent Marilyn Gilbert: “I am with you all the way on this one…too many rules and customs that make classical music concerts stiff and inhuman.”
  • Bonnie Booth of the Ontario Philharmonic: “I agree! I totally get lost in the music. Do not know how those sitting behind me feel though.”

John Terauds

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