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Applause between études? Bring it on…..

At the opening of the Bristol Proms, a bid to make classical music appeal to a more diverse audience, we were offered three concerts in an evenng.

Around the time of evensong, we had an hour-long recital in an Old Vic studio basement in near-pitch darkness from the Fitzhardinge Consort, a Bristol group spanning the centuries from Gesualdo to Eric Whitacre. The group maintained near-perfect pitch and rhythm despite (maybe due to) not being able to see conductor Tom Williams much of the time.



The main course was the Polish-Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki, filmed by multiple cameras and projected onto an overhead screen in digi-imagery as he played two sets of études by Chopin, with intros by Bach and Messiaen. Old Vic director Tom Morris announced in advance that there were no rules for these concerts and the audience should feel to applaud as and when it saw fit. We’ll come to that in a minute.

The late-night and most successful segment featured Hauschka, the German hip-hop turned improv pianist, playing contemplative variations on a Cageian prepared piano with an aleatory backdrop of live images from within the piano. A phlegmatic character with unexpected qualities of showmanship, Hauschka gauged his audience to perfection and found a close rapport with the standees in the pit of the theatre.



All three events were beamed live down the road to a second audience at the Watershed and some will be show this weekend on Channel 4 TV.

Technology apart, the Bristol Old Vic Proms did not feel like much of a revolution. The audience was not conspicuously different from many BBC Proms and the repertoire was pretty much along the old lines. What Lisiecki played is what he had recorded lately for Deutsche Grammophon, whose owner, Universal Music, was co-promoting these Proms.

As for the applause between études, the young pianist did not seem troubled and my concentration, for one, was not disturbed. What it did signify, though, was which pieces the audience responded to more, and which less. That stuck me as a useful barometer, signalling to the performer how he was getting through and allowing him to adjust his angle of approach as he continued. Was I bothered? Not at all. The taboo on silence – more likely coughs and farts – between movements may have outlived its usefulness. If the Bristol Proms encourage a response more in tune with modern lives, an instant indicator of appreciation or indifference, they will find a solid audience. I, for one, will be back.

Drink, though not food or ices, was admitted to the auditorium. Photography, however, was not permitted. Some more taboos may need to fall.



The Proms run all week and appear to be selling well. That said, friends in Bristol who don’t tune in to the broadcast partner Classic FM were unaware of their existence.

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  1. Gary Carpenter says:

    As each étude is a stand-alone piece, why wouldn’t one applaud?

    • There is evidence to the contrary given by Chopin himself, although nobody knows exactly whether only a few etudes or all of each opus (numbers 10 and 25) should be grouped together: At the end of the 3rd etude in E Major, Op. 10 No. 3, Chopin writes “attacca il presto con fuoco” which is the 4th etude in c-sharp minor — being the relative minor key to E Major, they go together quite well and were thus obviously intended to form a group. One could easily extend this particular group to include the first two etudes from that series on the basis of their key relationships. However, there is no obvious relation between c-sharp minor and G-Flat Major, the key of etude no. 5.

  2. Geoff Radnor says:

    This young Polish-Canadian Jan Lisiecki, sure gets around, last week he was at Verbier with all the big named stars. Let ‘s hope that he continues to impress. Verbier is all available on the net, wonderful stuff. i could never afford to go there, so it’s great to get it live and also later. they don’t let them play in the dark!

  3. richardcarlisle says:

    Thorough review, much appreciated … guess you weren’t disappointed in Lisiecki; he breathes vibrant life into everything, seeming to love what he performs and love performing.

    Many thanks, will look for youtube of Hauschka.

  4. Looking forward to purchasing the DGG new release of applauses with intermittent piano…

    • Why not dump the music altogether – it’s obviously getting in the way of people applauding, drinking, eating, using mobile phones etc..

      Why go to a concert if that’s what you want to do ? Go to a restaurant – they’d welcome your business.

  5. Gabor Fuchs says:

    About 20 years ago Earl Wild played Chopin s op.25 in Carnegie. So did Abbey Simon. The Chopin Etudes are a great challenge to any pianist and the 2 not- so – young-anymore pianists met the challenge with flying colors.

  6. Bad idea says:

    I wouldn’t comment on Lisiecki’s frankly pedantic and stilted performance of the etudes if I didn’t think it weren’t relevant to the issue here: when the etudes are played without spontaneity and whimsy, it is probably not disruptive for the audience to be inserting itself between them. But that behavior constrains a pianist who might want to use timing and silence to create relationships between the etudes when playing them as a set. Playing them a set of discrete bon-bons for show is just what happened at Verbier in the gala event (different performers for each), but I would expect a little more artistry from a supposedly top-notch pianist.

  7. As of last night (Tuesday), the “house rules” had changed, and photography was permitted, even encouraged, with a polite request to keep camera flashes switched off.

  8. This is an arty and innovative take on classical music concerts, but no so arty as to project live to a cinema audience a concert performed in almost total darkness!

  9. In common with at least three of the commentators above, I am perturbed by the suggestion that “an instant indicator of appreciation or indifference” were something to be welcomed: it might be a prevalent phenomenon “in tune with modern lives”, but that does not mean it were consequently a good thing. The arts should be trying to *lead* society in directions that many might find novel, challenging, or out of the ordinary, as opposed to following it by attempting to appear fashionable by resorting to gratuitous mimicry of the most superficial facets of certain comtemporary lifestyles.

    Music is a diachronic listening experience, for which the context afforded by the relations and cross‐references both within and between all the works in a programme is a significant aspect. One’s response to any given piece will be effected by what else they hear, and this response will alter over time, especially upon listening to the piece again. This should not be taken to mean that there were only one correct way of performing a work or a set of works; rather, it should be appreciated that the minutiae of presentation and syntax do alter perceptions. The presence of applause between each étude will *not* result in the listener’s hearing each étude in complete isolation from their experience of the others (both prior and subsequent), and indeed the Bach and Messiaen in the programme (this would be the case even if the reviewer were to have found the applause and drinking “disruptive”), but it *will* still have a bearing on the experience. I am not taking issue with the decision to allow applause, rather I am dissenting from the precepts of the underlying paradigm (which suggests that the arts should mimic its demographic’s “modern lives”, which is presumed to entail a very short attention‐span) that some commentators have cited for it.

  10. Walter Brewster says:

    Having just watched the last 20 minutes or so on Channel 4 I find it hard to imagine I was watching the same performer as Norman. Apart from what has already been said the Yamaha piano was in appalling state – closely miked and wildly out of tune. The playing seemed to have been cultivated to be superficial in order to draw in the audience of the moment. Maybe that was ok? I had a quick listen to Lisiecki’s new DG recording of the etudes which sound altogether different to tonight’s messy playing.

    I think there could be room to bring solo piano closer to an audience in the 21st century but this was very wide of the mark.

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