What's wrong with clapping?

 A recent concert-going experience caused a mix of emotion for me: pleasure, frustration, and ultimately boredom.  It then forced me to ask the question: what's wrong with clapping between movements at a classical music concert?

I love live music.  Some of my most fond memories are of music events attended in person.  I can still recall going to the Detroit Jazz Festival as a kid and sitting for hours along the Detroit River listening to band after band play.  My brother took me to a rock concert when I was in 8th grade, and I can still feel the pulse of the 20-foot tall speakers.  I once travelled to New York City with my sister for New Year's Eve, but the highlight of the experience was going to the Fez Under Time Cafe and hearing the Mingus Big Band live at 1 a.m. on New Year's Day.  The Rochester Jazz Festival is the new highlight of my summers.  I thrive on performing live in my various groups.

But live classical music more often than not leaves me uninspired, bored, and hasty to get out with my wife and friends after the show.  I've often wondered why this was, especially considering that I play classical music 5 hours a day for a living, I went to college for 7 years to study it, grew up with classical music in my household, and can honestly say that, as a genre, I sincerely love classical music.

I had an epiphany a couple weeks ago at an RPO concert.  First of all, I'm six-foot-three, so I simply do not fit into the seats in Eastman Theater.  Maybe the renovation will solve that problem for us tall people, although it speaks to the larger discomfort I regularly have at classical music concerts that I'm being forced to behave and act a certain way that is considerably restrictive.  Lots of rules to abide by at a classical music concert, mind you.  But after folding into my seat, I read the notes and got ready for a great show.  The first piece was Haydn's 49th Symphony, and the first movement was great--lots of drama, super soft softs, strong playing from all sections.  It really drew me in, and made me want to...applaud.  Aha!  That's not allowed!  You've got to wait 15 minutes before you can express your pleasure with the music you love!  You can see where I'm going with this.

Why can't I clap between movements at classical music concerts?  I was raised to stare down at those that did, refer to them after the concert as "uneducated," do everything in my power as a performer to not acknowledge them, and everything I could as a listener to glare disapprovingly at them.  I've completely changed.  Why can't a classical music concert be vibrant, with applause when you like what you hear?  That one simple change could bring down barriers that prevent more people from enjoying and starting lifelong relationships with the music we love.  Why can't classical music concerts take a cue from other genres and, well, lighten up a little?  Why does a classical music concert have to feel so institutional?  

I'm certainly not saying that we need to rip up all the seats and holler at the musicians.  There is some music that calls for reverent listening--and a top-notch performance like the first movement of that Haydn symphony the RPO played will command just such listening from any audience.  But I can't shake the feeling that something's got to give if we're going to have a vibrant, engaged audience.  The applause was just the one thing that set me to thinking.  Let's start a discussion here--post your comments and let us all know what you think.

I'll wrap up with some shameless self-promotion.  To see in action exactly what I'm hoping a classical music concert could be, come down to the Water Street Music Hall this Friday at 8:30.  You'll get to enjoy the top-notch Eastman Percussion Ensemble playing classical music in a decidedly non-classical setting (which I would presume will encourage intra-movement clapping), and then stay in house to hear my band The PoBoys Brass Band.  A classical music group teaming up with a funk band--I'm not saying this should be the next RPO show, but some of these concepts could travel...

I'll see you there, and share some thoughts about the goods and bads of this fusion next week on this blog.



Concert applause

"Lighten up a little ?

Not so sure the music being performed requires this.
Isn't there very often an intellectual, emotional mood produced in the creation of classical music that applause between the movements might cause an distraction or breakdown of the mood ?
Not so sure I would welcome applause between movements of La Mer

Haydn's 49th - I guess that's the wonder of listening thru different ears. I felt the RPO(Sat.) did not play with conviction until the last movement.
To me. it seemed as if they were very hesitant and not together for much of the symphony particularly the second movement where the solo parts/section playing was difficult to hear from the Loge.
PS. Those horn parts are a B.... !
Couldn't help but wonder if they were saving themselves for the Bartok.


Hi Mike,

Your comment resonates well with me, and I hope with other readers.  Excuse my use of parlance like "lighten up."  What I'm thinking with that term is the very reverent approach often associated with classical music--often far too reverent for my tates.  My contension is that an intriguing and captivating performance will cause reverent listening in the hall, but having that foisted upon you can be off-putting for lots of people (myself included).

 In the case of La Mer, I concur in whole that for some people, intra-movement applause would disrupt the music.  But, I do feel that there could at least be some kind of preparation for listeners--an explanation of why not to clap, what one could be paying attention to in that tense (and sometimes awkward) silence between movements.  Perhaps this raises the larger topic of the performers interacting more on a verbal scale with the audience both before and after the performance of a piece.  I can easily envision Christopher Seaman, in his acute natural way, sharing some thoughts with the audience before La Mer begins about the shifts of mood between movements, in essence encouraging the audience to actively listen and zone in to Ravel's intentions (if we can, indeed, honetly divine what those were).  In other words, I think lots of people don't understand why we can't clap between movements like you would clap for a good solo in a jazz performance.  Explanation and definition could help engage more people.  Let's remember context, too, especially in the case of Haydn's symphonies.  These were not "concert pieces," they were music for the court to enjoy during dinner or a gathering, so I can only assume that there was constant noise going on while they were being performed.

The Bartok was exciting for sure, and I second your impressions of Haydn's horn parts.  Maybe we were there on different nights, or maybe we did indeed hear the same show with different ears.  Thanks for your comment.


 Chris Van Hof

WXXI-FM Afternoon Host