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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Hold the applause

Sam Allis, wrote today on page A2 of the Boston Sunday Globe an essay titled “Make a joyful noise: Classical audiences should loosen up and applaud at will.” He addresses the issue of applause between movements at a symphonic or chamber music concert.

The custom is - and has been for some time - that applause should be reserved until the entire work has come to a conclusion. On occasion, a few people unfamiliar with the norms of classical concert going have inadvertently applauded between movements of a musical work, creating momentary embarrassment for them, and a tad of unease for those enjoying the silence.

Allis cites examples of what he sees as an ingrained cultural humiliation process for the classical music novice - a degrading experience that he equates to a “rite of passage to gain admission into the Grand Order of Aesthetes.” In his mind, admonishing an unknowing applauder for his or her sins is akin to vindictive hazing. The cruel act of public banishment is symptomatic of why the outdated cultural institution of classical music is in rapid decline. Allis seems to view the “applause rule” to be indicative of the worst aspects of an elitist world of art music governed by cultural snobs and know-it-all experts.

His opinion seems to be that it’s OK to clap enthusiastically when you are moved, since it happens by default at other music venues such as rock concerts and in jazz clubs.

Allis quotes several prominent musicians who appear to be out front about this – including pianist Emanuel Ax (who he refers to as “Manny”) and conductor/composer Andre Previn. Ax makes his case for relaxing the arcane applause rule, calling it an “Edict of Silence.” He’s consulted with eminent musicologists on this issue, and sees no good reason to strictly enforce the staid and unwritten law. Above all, Ax does not want to ostracize the waning audience for classical music, and earnestly strives to forge a symbiotic relationship between performers and listeners – some of which are brand new to the scene.

Previn is more cautious in his pronouncements, saying it would be inappropriate to clap after a long Bruckner adagio, but that in other instances it would not bother him.

Mark Volpe, general manager of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is said to be in agreement with Ax on the issue of applause, observing that the vow of silence is terrifying newcomers to the classical milieu and has potential to negatively impact the bottom line, particularly in these brutal and trying economic times. Arts organizations are running scared. They don’t want to alienate or intimidate anyone.

I credit Allis for bringing up this topic, but I disagree with any notion that we as an audience should discard the tradition of withholding our applause at a concert until the musical work has fully concluded.

It’s not a simple matter, since I have come to realize that music is almost entirely a sociological and cultural phenomenon. Experiencing music in a concert hall does not occur as an isolated event independent of the trappings of tradition and long-standing culture. The music that is presented does not, and can not, stand alone in pure abstraction disassociated from the collective consensus of our civilization. There has to be general agreement about what the concert ritual is about, and what the rules of engagement are.

For many of us who live for music, the concert experience is not unlike attending a religious service at a house of worship, and many classical works heard in performance stem of religious contexts. Music that is carefully selected and performed in this venue is not only dependent on the concert hall for its acoustical rendering of the sound, but on the reception of it by a thoughtful, sensitive, and committed audience. The audience plays a vital role, since any form of music wouldn’t persist for very long unless a dedicated following were to exist.

The erosion of the number of people who are actively engaged as consumers in the classical music business can not simply be attributed to what might be regarded as outmoded traditions. There are other factors in play, but the “applause rule” is not to blame. In fact, one could even make that case that “snob appeal” is a very important ingredient in the toolkit of marketing strategies needed to sell expensive tickets to high-brow cultural events – such as Boston Symphony concerts. While you might sell a few more tickets if the red-carpet trappings of prestige were purged, you would probably only bring into the “big tent” a few newcomers who had been put off by the pretensions elegance of tinsel chandeliers or the jaded appearance of rich people wearing tuxedos. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a purist. I have attended BSO concerts wearing blue jeans and sandals, but that is only an eye-sore for some, not an ear-sore.

It’s a complicated paradigm, and I don’t want to imply that admission should be limited by a glass ceiling, but there is an unfortunately an element of earned or inherited acceptance. Many subscribers to BSO concert seasons have held their tickets for a life-time – often passing it down through the generations. Perhaps if what they perceive as an elegant night out on the town to experience high culture were degraded, they would stop attending. As Groucho said, “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member.” In other words, the BSO Social Club is by definition snobby, and irregardless of the music that they play, the socio-cultural baggage needed to keep the ship afloat is a necessary evil.

I don’t know where or how the age-old tradition of clapping at concerts began. It’s an odd custom, and its existence is just as hard to justify as its absence. What does disturb me is a growing lack of commitment and respect to the music within the confines of the concert hall. It’s not just about the performers and how well they played, but it’s fundamentally about the music and our spiritual connection to it. One does not applaud in church. Similarly, one should be pious and remain silent until the musical work has run its course. It’s part of a bargain that we have made collectively with the composer to hear the music out with respect – from beginning to end – without the interruptions or mental distractions that breaking the mood would surely entail.

Musical works conceived in multiple movements are for the most part designed and intended to be heard as a unified work. The silence between movements is intended as just that: Silence. Silence is one of the composers’ basic materials. It is not redundant, extraneous, or optional. It’s one of the more important structural aspects of a musical composition – framing the overall architectural design of the individual constituent parts. Personally, I would not want my experience of a work to be interrupted mid-stream. From the performers perspective, I believe the majority of them would prefer not to be distracted or to lose their concentration from frequent applause occurring throughout their reading of a musical work. Save it until the end.

A good example of the importance of silence between movements occurred earlier this season in a performance by the BSO led by its music director James Levine of Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum by Messiaen. Levine left very long durations of silence between the movements (lasting minutes) as a way to articulate the religious and meditative nature of the work. It is a piece that benefits greatly from reverent silence strategically inserted between sections, and all of the 2000 or so members of the audience who attended the concert instinctively understood this ritual: no one dared to made a sound. The silence in Symphony Hall that day was not only deafening, but it contributed to the emotional impact of the work and provided an important level of meaning. That’s why we go to concerts, to experience not only the audible music, but to share in the reflective quality of musical silence in the presence of others.

There is also a slippery slope to beware of. If one loosens the rule regarding applause, why not loosen or eliminate other rules of good conduct too? What’s so bad about cell phones on in this wired age? Why not accommodate late-comers, head-for-the-door early departers, and those who like to hum or sing-a-long? What about booing? Many people hold contemporary music in disdain, so why not allow them to heckle the performance of a new and unfamiliar work as it is played? I’m a reactionary when it comes to these violations. Personally, I think the mistake of allowing a cell phone to ring during a performance is justification for capital punishment.

To insure the longevity of the classical music industry, we should consider enforcing the rules rather than abandoning them. People need to think twice about attending a concert if they suffer from a bad cold or cough. Coughing at a classical music concert is a crime, and those people should be punished – severely. In fact, these violators should be humiliated more often than they are in today’s liberal anything goes concert environment. Call me a snob, but on occasion I have asked fellow concert goers to leave the hall for making noise with candy wrappers or talking. A few summers back, two people at a Boston Pops concert ended up in a fist fight in a dispute over talking while the music was being played. The riff was caught on camera, and aired on one of the local TV news stations that evening. It’s not a trivial matter.

We need to draw the line very clearly about what is (and what is not) an appropriate way to conduct ourselves at concerts of classical music. I’m in favor of maintaining the long established status quo with regard to applause between movements. There is little to be gained by throwing out the restriction, and so much to lose.

Hold the applause until the end. Please!