To clap or not clap; Alex Ross looks at the concert-going experience
Ross, music critic of the New Yorker and author of the widely praised book "The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century," is not the first to question whether classical music is its own worst enemy, in terms of making the concert-going experience so stuffy, ritualistic and even prohibitive. But, naturally, he has expressed his views with more flair and insight than most. His primary focus, and the one that got online commenters and Twitterers going, was the oppressive no-applause-between-movements rule.
To quote Ross: "The underlying message of the protocol is, in essence, “Curb your enthusiasm. Don’t get too excited.” Should we be surprised that people aren’t quite as excited about classical music as they used to be? To be sure, the question of concert etiquette is only part, and perhaps a rather small part, of the complicated social dilemma in which classical music finds itself—as a largely acoustic art in an electronic culture, as a mainly long-form art in a short-attention-span age ... Nevertheless, I do wonder about it, as I wonder about other tics of concert life: the vaguely Edwardian costumes, the convention-center lighting schemes, the aggressive affectlessness of the average professional musician, especially in America."
Just a few weeks ago, when Itzhak Perlman conducted the Baltimore Symphony, he admonished people for applauding between movements, a scene I recalled when I read these lines from Ross' lecture:
"I would much rather prefer to hear a smattering of applause than be subjected to that distinctly un-beautiful, un-musical, coughing, shuffling, rustling noise, which is quite literally the sound of people suppressing their instincts. Even worse, in my opinion, is the hushing of attempted applause. People who applaud in the “wrong place”— usually the right place, in terms of the composer’s intentions—are presumably not in the habit of attending concerts regularly. They may well be attending for the first time. Having been hissed at, they may never attend again." (For sad validation of that point, check out the second comment on my review of that Perlman/BSO concert .)
But, as Ross also points out, there are pieces of music that are simply more effectively listened to without inter-movement applause. There is something to be said for mood. I remember getting terribly annoyed during a performance of
Let's face it, that's not going to make a huge difference. What could make a difference is if more musicians took the time to talk to people about such things, right there in the concert hall. If Perlman, for example, hated the clapping so much, he only had to turn around and say (OK, I know this might not have been practical without a microphone handy, but just go with me here): "I really appreciate your enthusiasm, but I think this piece makes a much stronger impression if each movement is thought of as connected" -- or something like that.
If more soloists, conductors and orchestras were to remember that there may well be classical music novices at every single performance, and to welcome them into the experience with informal remarks beforehand, things could be a whole lot nicer in the halls. Assuming that everyone knows "the rules" is the surest way to keep driving people away. Assuming that all of those rules are infallible is another.
There are several folks who have made careers out of declaring the death of classical music for a long time now. There's a whole cottage industry of great experts and for-hire consultants promising cure-alls for what ails the business. Seems to me like a bracing dose of common sense would do the trick.
Not that you asked for my advice, but I'd break it down like this: First, let people have fun at a concert, as long as it's appropriate for the music at hand. And if the music is too serious, meant to be seamlessly heard, take a few minutes to explain that and gently request for applause to be withheld. For all the other stuff, don't just tolerate "wrong" applause, acknowledge it with a little turn and a smile -- yes, from the whole orchestra, too.
Speaking of orchestras, enough with that stony-faced, eyes-front bunch in the white ties and tails. I don't care if y'all still want to wear Victorian clothes -- you don't have to act like mannequins while you're in them. Concert attire is a prime target of many who think classical music is dying. I wonder how much would really change if players wore business attire, or casual Friday, or jogging suits. It's the attitude, not the clothes. Too many musicians look like they're miserable or haughty, or both. That's as big a barrier as any no-applause rule.
And never, ever forget some people in the house will be inexperienced. Give them something good, nourishing, enticing to remember.
Anyway, it's valuable for people on both sides of the stage to be talking about such things. I heartily recommend that you download and read the whole Alex Ross lecture; lots of provocative material there.
These days, thoughts of budgets and salaries and benefits may be most pressing on the minds of musicians and managements, but there has to be increased attention on the basic issue of how music is communicated to the public, how the public can become a more active and warmly embraced component in the struggle to preserve and promote a precious art form.
I rather think the classical music biz could use the equivalent of a Second Vatican Council. We've already seen some reforms (orchestra players turning to face audiences is as radical in its way as priests facing their congregations), but we simply need more changes, more imagination, more innovation to energize and connect everyone who truly loves this music.
BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTO