« Samuel Barber's centennial provides a reminder of the composer's communicative power | Main | Maryland Opera Studio in training for premiere of "Shadowboxer," about legendary Joe Louis »

March 10, 2010

To clap or not clap; Alex Ross looks at the concert-going experience

A lot of the buzz this week in classical music circles will be about a lecture Alex Ross gave Monday in London for the nearly 200-year-old Royal Philharmonic Society, an organization dedicated “to create a future for music through the encouragement of creativity, the recognition of excellence and the promotion of understanding." An edited version also appeared under his byline in the  Guardian.

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

Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" because of the applause after each part of the score; all that audience participation just shattered the atmosphere of what, to me, was such a high-art moment. But if I thought that an applaud-whenever-you-feel-like-it policy would fill concert halls again, I'd be the first to endorse it.

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.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:52 AM | | Comments (2)


Great entry Tim, very thoughtful look at the issues of applause vs tradition.

I personally favor a more informal experience. I like to be comfortable if I'm going to sit for a few hours, so khakis and cotton are what I choose. I use small Olympus field binocs, not opera glasses. I'd be happy if the orchestra wore business casual attire, as long as they played just as well. I'm fine with inter-movement applause. I clearly recall vigorous applause after particularly well performed arias during the many years I had season tickets at the Baltimore Opera. I don't recall any of the tenors or sopranos scolding the audience for it. ;)

I want to continue to enjoy live symphony music for the next few decades, so I think it's important to adapt to changing times. Otherwise, the "average age" of audiences shall remain in the 60s.

Thanks for the comments. You know, it's funny how we would not so much be adapting to changing times if we sanctioned more applause, but going back to olden times, when it was weird if people didn't applaud. It would be fun to see musicians go for a different attire, at least for some concerts, to gauge the audience response and find out if it makes any difference to the music-making. I like the idea of setting a tone visually -- dressing up does indicate that this isn't just another night out, just another form of entertainment. But holding onto the white tie tradition might well be over-doing it, might well be causing some folks to feel alienated. Might as well experiment. Nothing to lose at this point, except, perhaps, for some conservative 60-somethings. TIM

I attempted to explain my own position on this subject twice already, but I quit each time, because I realized that both you, Tim, and Mr. Ross said everything necessary on the subject, and I find myself in hearty agreement with every point you made.

In summary: relax, be comfortable (especially in terms of what you're wearing), have fun, and never take the proceedings too seriously. This applies to _both_ musician and concertgoer. (Of course, if I had my way, every concert hall would be full of big, comfy, single chairs, much like the chairs in the Meyerhoff up in the stage-side boxes -- no sofas, as those would encourage too much detachment from the proceedings.)

But I simply wish to emphasize one point to all patrons, whether they be adepts or neophytes: talking during the actual _performance_ of the music is _never_ acceptable. We attend concerts to experience music; all distractions which degrade or interfere with that experience (e.g., mobile devices, reading, talking), should be kept to an absolute minimum, if not eliminated totally. Coughing and rustling, while sometimes annoying, are to be expected and tolerated; we have a gigantic slew of fine recordings, especially from the "golden days," which prove this. ;^)

Ignoramuses will be ignoramuses, however, so one can only do so much to stop them from annoying their fellow patrons. Hopefully they're not swinging their elbows like Karl Malone or LeBron James in the basketball playoffs...

If "continuity" in the musical experience is desired (or necessary), and if the musicians wish to restrict applause to certain points in a given programme, then the musicians themselves (or a selected, _visible_ representative, who can speak loudly and clearly) need to inform the audience politely but firmly (i.e., in no uncertain terms) of whatever "ground rules" are set. And the occasional reminder at breaks in the programme should be applied, too.

I remember seeing Masur conduct the Bruckner 7th in DC two years ago, and an older gentleman (sitting in the back row of the second tier, almost adjacent to the stage itself) was standing in his seat, following along and "conducting" with the blue Nowak edition of the study score. He was totally out of the way and not bothering anyone -- though, apparently, someone complained, as one of the ushers tried to derail his fun during the first movement. He simply waved her off and continued, with his two friends sitting happily beside him. I thought he was quite amusing, and he was obviously well-informed about the music. I would equate him some of the more dedicated (read: crazier) football fans at a game. (Think Oakland, Washington, Cleveland. ;^)

(Now, if someone were to do that in the orchestra seats right in front of me, I might want to bop him/her on the head, but this gentleman was in a prime location to "do his own thing." And if some musicians were bothered -- well, they'd have been looking well above and beyond Masur!!!)

Speaking of Bruckner, please check this link:

Talk about a good PR move! And considering the conductor and ensemble, this is sure to be one _magnificent_ freebie.

Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
View the Artsmash blog

Baltimore Sun coverage
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop
Famous faces in classical music
Sign up for FREE entertainment alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for nightlife text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Weekend Watch newsletter
Plan your weekend with's best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV picks and more delivered to you every Thursday for free.
See a sample | Sign up

Most Recent Comments
Stay connected