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November 19, 2007

Formality in concert: have we gone too far?

I've written before about the sense of formality in today's classical music concert world - a formality that sometimes borders on rigidity. No applause between movements is one of my favorite symbols for this problem, though the white tie and tails of orchestra musicians runs a close second. This ritual-like atmosphere, which to some degree can enhance a concert experience, can also, if overdone, make it a less-than-welcoming experience for those new to the music. That is especially true, I think, of younger people who have grown up in a society that has moved away from some of these rituals...

I would never advocate a return to the "good old days" of the 19th-century concert. But a good look at that era shows us how huge the distance is between then and now, and I wonder if at least some degree of the more relaxed atmosphere of the past might not be a good thing.

What sparked this is a radio program I was producing recently on music by the 19th-century Polish violinist and composer Karol Lipiński. Lipiński was called by some the Polish Paganini, and was a very important musician respected by Schumann, Liszt, Spohr and others, even though he has disappeared from today's music world (which is too bad - his concertos are great fun, in the Paganini mold).

At any rate, I found commentary by the poet Franciszek Kowalski on an early performance of Lipiński's First Violin Concerto, given in Kiev (we are talking about 1824 here), with the composer as soloist. The picture created by this commentary is fascinating:

Thus we went to Lipiński's concert. The room could not accommodate all the people, numbering perhaps a thousand. With my heart beating frantically, I awaited the appearance of the great master. In the meantime, an excellent orchestra played various pieces, until the tones of the wonderful Tutti from his first Concerto could be heard [note: this refers to the orchestral introduction to the piece] and when the orchestra fell silent the composer in person, violin in hand, stepped onto the empty podium in the midst of the orchestra. This was when I saw him for the first time middle-aged, with a pale face and dark black hair, slender, of medium height, dressed all in black with a white kerchief and vest, the way he always dressed. He was greeted immediately with friendly glances and loud cheers by the members of the public that he had already known. His modest demeanor...captivated me as it did the others, beyond all bounds. And that was still nothing compared with what was coming when with solemn silence he drew the bow and sang the first solo of his Concerto....

It is of course impossible to imagine a soloist making a grand entrance after the orchestral introduction but before the introduction of the solo instrument in a concerto today - and I would be the first to agree that we might all recoil in some horror at that level of disruption to the flow of the music (though it is certainly interesting to realize that the composer didn't mind it). But it does raise the issue, yet again, of just how far we have carried the formality of our contemporary concerts, and whether perhaps we have gone too far.

Posted by hfogel at November 19, 2007 3:13 PM

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Many of us say the formality and lack of spontaneity {or is it simply remarkable restraint} we show at concerts is a huge barrier to the future prosperity of classical music. The pretentious silence between movements is often so stifling yet can be interrupted successfully by at least one brave music enthusiast...Henry, a challenge!

Jennifer, I have taken that challenge on many times in my life. Sometimes being the first to applaud after, say, the first movement of a performance of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto has led to the entire audience applauding. But at other times, it has led to people shushing me and looking horrified. And of course that was not an appropriate time to begin a discussion about historic audience behavior practice! Not that long ago a major conductor chastised an audience for applauding after the third movement of Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony. He said the applause disturbed the composer's flow of mood. I wonder if Tchaikovsky didn't expect applause after that rousing ending to the third movement. And even if he didn't, did not the scolding of the audience even further ruin the mood?


Posted by: Jennifer McCausland at November 19, 2007 8:24 PM

I have also been in an audience that clapped after the third movement of the Pathetique, and was also scolded. And let me tell you: Nothing says "we're here to enjoy ourselves" less than being scolded. The first thing every conductor should learn in orchestra school is not to scold unless members of the audience are shooting silly string onto the performers or something like that.

Posted by: Lindemann at November 20, 2007 11:32 AM

I may have told Henry this story before - if so, forgive me for repeating it.

Violinist Timothy Fain opened the Bellevue (Wash.) Philharmonic's 2004-2005 season with the Tchaikovsky concerto. He got a standing ovation after the FIRST movement - the audience was on its feet, screaming. It stopped the show cold for two minutes. When I mentioned this a few days later to an artist manager friend (not Fain's manager), he said: "Larry, your audience is so dumb. Don't they know they're not supposed to clap in between movements."

BTW, I always advise conductors to acknowledge applause in between movements with a nod of the head or similar gesture, so the people clapping are not offended.

Posted by: Larry Fried at November 20, 2007 1:56 PM

Henry,the next time I am in New York lets go to a concert together and clap out hearts out{between movements} there is considerate power in numbers!
Compare the audience engagement in Opera with the Symphony Hall experience..it is startling! Small wonder that interest in Opera is booming and the death bells were tolling for classical music. However, I am confident that the Gustavo Dudamel's of the new symphonic world will applaud a passionate audience not punish them.

Posted by: Jennifer McCausland at November 20, 2007 2:45 PM

I'm certainly all for changes to stodgy concert formats. I don't generally applaud between movements, though I don't really object if people do - at least movements that have rousing endings. (I do, however, favor severe punishment for people who start applauding at the end of operas - Walkure or Tristan in particular - before the final chord has completely died out).

I'm now living in Yerevan, Armenia, and the applause police are the most aggressive I've ever witnessed, immediately trying to shush anyone who tries to applaud between movements, so this is not strictly an American phenomenon.

While I submit that classical concerts are no different than many other forms of entertainment - with certain behavioral norms known primarily by the regulars and learned easily enough by observant newcomers - I wouldn't say there's anything sacrosanct about those rituals. Except for one: keeping quiet during the show. This isn't about rigidity or formality, but basic courtesy. When I go to a concert, I don't pay for the privilege of hearing other audience members talk, hum along to the piece, open gum rappers, get up and walk around, etc.. Orchestral concerts require concentrated listening. So do movies, for that matter.

One thing I would like to see change in the orchestra world is a move from the rigid adherence - practically worldwide - to the two-hour concert length with a 20-minute intermission. Ok, it helps make things predictable and you can tell the baby-sitter when you'll be home. I'm sure it would mess with service calculations and raise overtime issues, but maybe sometimes concerts should be three hours long, other times half that. Operas aren't a standard length, after all.

A little more imagination in programming wouldn't be a bad thing, either. Whether more light classics, more effort to expose unjustly neglected near-masterworks, or, my favorite - doing occasional pieces (or entire programs) for wind ensembles. I have also been intrigued by the recent "Berlin in Lights" festival in New York, in particular with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic performing Rite of Spring with dancing by New York schoolchildren, a repeat of what they did originally in Berlin. It's one of the coolest things I've ever heard of, and appeared to be a huge hit. How I wish I could have seen it. And it begs the question of why nobody else has done it (or something similarly inspired) in the U.S.. THAT's a way to break down formality and lack of spontaneity - and bring in that sought-after new audience.

Posted by: Marko Velikonja at November 20, 2007 5:22 PM

It will come full circle. New audiences will break old traditions over time. Also, I think if something crafty is printed in programs, such as, 'If the performance moves you to applaud between movements, please show your enthusiasm', it will break the barriers of formality. Or, 'Shut all cell phones and please applaud between movements!'

Posted by: Jeffrey Biegel at November 21, 2007 6:07 AM

I must be the fuddy duddy here. Silence is an important part of music and applauding in between movements violates the tonal/structural integrity of the score. Cough, catch your breath but leave the applause for the end. If applauding at the end of a movement is OK why not after a particularily bravura passage within a movement? I was recently at a performance of the Symphony Fantastique when various audience applauded in the middle of the first movement after a loud chord. It's annoying and breaks the spell that the composer set out to create.

Sorry, Tony, but I really don't agree that applauding within a movement is the same as applauding between movements. Movement ends are natural pauses -- orchestras sometimes tune at that point (what does that do to the tonal structure?), people cough, halls allow latecomers in, etc. And all of the documentation that we have indicates that composers through the 19th century expected applause between movements, and wrote their music knowing it would occur. I've cited many examples of that in the past - but to re-state one of the most concrete examples, Berlioz' essay on the Beethoven symphonies indicates that audiences liked the 2nd movement of the 7th Symphony best "because it got the longest applause." I do certainly agree that applause in mid-movement are disruptive.


Posted by: Tony at November 21, 2007 3:58 PM

I think that the practice of not clapping between movements is a way for both musicians and "enlightened and educated" audience members to show how much smarter they are than the clappers, because they know more about the music than you. It is as much an unwelcoming ritual, as the older (often elegantly dressed) folks who look down on the 20- somethings in the cheap seats (which are often comparatively high--$35 for balcony seats at Severance Hall--$70 a couple, plus fees is still a lot more than going to the movies), who refrain from wearing dresses, coats and ties, preferring more casual, but usually not any less stylish attire.

Posted by: Thom at November 24, 2007 1:13 PM

I heard the Chiara String Quartet play last week at Seattle's Tractor Tavern, normally the home of rockabilly and roots music. Before they began, cellist Greg Beaver assured the audience it was perfectly OK to clap between movements. Later in the evening they played a three-movement quartet by Jefferson Friedman. After the first, there was satisfied silence--and Beaver again reminded us it was OK to clap. Now, of course, everyone felt self-conscious and uncomfortable about not clapping, so of course we did. Why didn't we clap in the first place? I think it was less because of the ingrained-ness of the no-clap tradition than because the movement ended loud and fast and very abruptly--the sudden silence was a marvelous effect and no one wanted to spoil it. There was a palpable sense of "Aaaaahhhh!" in the room when the silence "rang out." Odd situation: an audience relishing the between-movement quiet but being awkwardly asked to applaud. . .

Posted by: gkb at December 3, 2007 9:39 PM

I attend concerts weekly here in Brazil, I recently part of the community here had the very same discussion. And the ideas and problems are about the same (so it seems to be the same everywhere there is an orchestra performing).
I am a big fan of Tchaikovsky's Patetique, and I always wanted to applause at the end of the Allegro Molto Vivace. But never did. Out of politeness of being at a place that does not accept that behavior - I don't like or want ot be scolded of shushed.
I am completely against applause while the orchestra is performing (silence during performance is golden), and I don't think applause between movements disrupts the musicians, but I have witnessed that very same applause disrupting the conductor who wa anxious, willing and ready to start the next movement.
I read all the comments on this article, and I can tell you that in Brazil we have the very same problems, discussions, opinions and issues. So I think this is global.
I tend to think that the worse problem - at least most of the time - is not the applause, but the scolding and shushing.
A friend conductor once told me that the shushing was way worse than the applause.
Who's to win?

I certainly would agree that the shushing is worse than the applause - and conductors scolding the audience for applauding is even worse. As I have said earlier, there is significant documentary evidence that until the beginning part of the 20th century, applause between movements was a normal part of concert behavior, and was expected. One can read about the long ovation after the slow movement of Dvorak's "New World Symphony" at its premiere in Carnegie Hall, and Dvorak smiling, standing, and waving to the audience. My feeling is that conductors who find this disruptive need to adjust their attitude, and should find pleasure in the fact that an audience wishes to applaud their work.


Posted by: Chris Pruks at December 11, 2007 7:49 AM

What makes it tricky is how the tradition changed over time. While applauding between movements of a Mozart symphony might be fine and in keeping with what the composer himself would have experienced, is the same true of Mahler? Or Shostakovich? The modern tradition of silence between movements seems a better fit for those composers.

And, of course, any suggestion that "it's OK for this music, but not for this" makes the problem even worse, because now there's even more knowledge that needs to be brought to the concert hall, making the experience seem even more off-putting to the casual listener - "that's only for those who understand it," folks will say.

The conductor can be the key to this whole thing. Rather than scold or shush (definitely bad), why not speak to the audience beforehand, explaining, if silence is desired, what that is so? My orchestra's conductor recently did this before a performance of Tchaikovsky 6th. He explained the sharp contrast in mood between the 3rd and 4th movements and speculated on why Tchaikovsky may have chosen to end his symphony that way, as opposed to the crash-bang endings of the 4th and 5th symphonies. With that brief explanation, his request to have silence between the 3rd and 4th movements made perfect sense to everyone. What a better way to handle it, than to go in with a (perhaps unrealistic) expectation and then scold the audience.

The way your conductor handled this is a perfect way to deal with the situation. From what we know of Mahler's time, applause after movements was often the norm - though perhaps not all movements. Sometimes the key is in the music (I would certainly prefer not to have applause after a Bruckner Adagio, for example, but would find it singularly appropriate after the first movement of the Mahler Third Symphony).

A wonderful story on this subject occurred in my own professional experience. In 1990, when we were preparing at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra a set of CDs of live performances from the CSO's archives to celebrate the Orchestra's centennial, one performance that we all felt must be included was a Stokowski-led Shostakovich Tenth Symphony. As we listened to the radio tape, there was one lone person applauding after the Scherzo (which was blazingly played). Naturally, for a recording, we edited it out. When the set was released, a few of the old-timers in the orchestra told me that we should have left it in, and explained in the accompanying booklet just who that one person was. It was Stokowski, applauding the orchestra he was conducting!


Posted by: Paul Helfrich at December 11, 2007 1:12 PM

I never saw - thankfully - any conductor scold or shush the audience. I sometimes saw conductors give the so-called 'philistines' a very cold stare. But I never saw any of them being impolite

What happens a lot is a big part of the audience shushing. And, in my opinion, if part of the audience is already applausing, let them applaud.

Of course education and information is the best course of action. The same way conductors ask, before the concert, for silence because there is a recording going on, I think it would be great for them to ask for silence between movements (or permit applause, for that matter).

For me it is the same as a smoker on a non-smoking place: like it or not, agree with rules or not, you should put down your cigarette. If the 'house-rules' for the night is "applaud if you like", than you can 'not-applaud', but don't scold or shush - it is way worse.

I am sorry to report that I have seen conductors, more than once, scold the audience. A few years ago, a conductor at the New Jersey Symphony was upset that the audience applauded after the first movement of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," which is actually not even a structured symphony. He turned to the audience, wagged his finger at them, and then held up four fingers and pointed to them, one at a time, to indicate there were four movements! It was humiliating to those in the audience who had applauded.


Posted by: Chris Pruks at December 12, 2007 10:59 AM