To Clap or Not To Clap? – Leonard Slatkin Poses the Question

Written by: Leonard Slatkin

The concert season is in full swing around the world. Orchestras are tuning up, bringing out their musical gifts to the concert-going public. Most of the time, they know their efforts will be rewarded with rounds of applause. They just don’t know when it will occur.

I was reminded of the difficult choice the audience must make in this regard, with a few concerts that I conducted over the first weeks of this season. For our opening subscription concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra, we had the pleasure of working with the outstanding violinist Gil Shaham. He played the concerto by Brahms. Near the end of the first movement, there is an extended cadenza of unrelenting bravura. When the movement ended a few minutes later, the audience broke into spontaneous applause, even though there were still two movements to go. But this was just on the first night of three performances. During the remaining concerts, the audience refrained from expressing themselves.

One night after the final Brahms performance, another virtuoso, Josuha Bell, in the Tchaikovsky concerto, joined us. Once again, there is a lengthy cadenza and a brilliant coda to the first movement. Not only did the audience enthusiastically applaud, they gave Josh a standing ovation that lasted almost two minutes! On stage, we wondered if we actually needed to play the remaining two movements.

This past summer, I was conducting at the Proms in London. Lang Lang was the piano soloist, performing the First Concerto by Chopin. Even though there is no cadenza, the crowd of 7,000 gave another rousing ovation after the first movement. Lang Lang graciously bowed to them.

The concluding work on that program was Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss. There is a moment, near the end of the work, where a silence occurs before the music continues. Some of the audience began to applaud, even though I had kept my arms up in an effort to prevent such an occurrence.

I cite these examples because it is clear that many concertgoers do not understand the etiquette that goes along with their participation in the performance. “Should I or shouldn’t I?” Most of the time, most listeners just wait to see what others will do and follow suit.

But what do the performers expect?

Well, the argument against premature applause is that it interrupts the flow of the entire work. Although in theory this may be true, music history tells us otherwise. At the premiere of the Seventh Symphony by Beethoven, the slow movement had to be played twice due to the ovation it received in isolation of the rest of the piece. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was common for the audience to express its appreciation and demand, if not a repeat of a movement, at least an encore from the performers.

Most of the time, this dilemma is found in Concertos. But there are a couple of orchestral works that have pitfalls as well. Perhaps the most famous occurs in the
Tchaikovsky 6th Symphony, the Pathétique. The third movement of this work is an explosive march. If this were the finale, audience reaction would be thunderous. Nine out of ten times, the listeners respond to this movement with applause, as if the Symphony was over. Even now, there are many listeners who are not aware there is an aching last movement to come, one of the great death-scenes in all of music.

What is the real force that makes us want to applaud at moments when it would appear that we should not? It is simple. The applause is not only to acknowledge the performers and a particular portion of the work, but is also a suitable way to break unremitting tension in a positive way.

What happens when no-one applauds? The audience coughs and finds other ways to release the build-up of sitting for up to 25 minutes in silence. I remember a performance of the First Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto with Byron Janis that we did together in Madrid. When the first movement ended, about four or five people started to clap, and 2,000 others shushed them. Then they coughed and talked. It was five minutes before we could begin the next movement.

Interestingly, there seems to be a double standard when it comes to opera. At the moment when Tosca finishes ‘Vissi d’arte’, for example, shouts of “Brava, Brava” rain down from the rafters. An ovation can continue for minutes. What happened to the dramatic flow of the text, not to mention a musical transition that is lost? We don’t applaud during a soliloquy at a play, and the aria is certainly the equivalent. Again, I believe we want to reward a fine performance and relieve the tension we experience in the audience, even if it supposedly disrupts the long line that the performers have worked so hard to achieve.

And how do the musicians feel about it? I can only think of a few that prefer the silence. And this mostly applies to the intimacy of the recital. Most of us are delighted that the audience is enjoying the performance and wants us to know it. It also gives the musicians time to catch our breath and re-adjust our mental and emotional attitude for what is to come next. Yes, it is inappropriate to applaud in the middle of a piece, and that does happen sometimes. But no sin has occurred. And there should be no embarrassment.

Once in a while something will happen where the inappropriate does occur. There is a famous place in the Fifth Symphony by Tchaikovsky (him again). The music is loud and comes to a halt. Unless one already knows the piece, this silence can be construed as an ending. Audiences around the world start to applaud here, even though there are a couple of minutes of music remaining to be played. On one occasion, the conductor actually had the orchestra stand up; he took a bow, went off stage, returned and brought his arms down to play the coda of the Symphony. Cute, but insulting to the audience.

In summation, it is just fine to express yourself at a concert. Read the program book so you are informed as to the different sections of a particular piece. If you are moved by the performance or work, feel free to show the performers how you feel. That goes not only for cheering and applause, but the opposite as well (such as at La Scala recently). With the complaints we sometimes get about new music, it is now very rare for the audience to lustily boo as was customary in earlier times. I miss that. How are we to know which music to bring back if we do not hear from the listeners? But that is a subject for future discussion.

So clap away. Just be sincere in your appreciation. Those of us on the stage will know if you really mean it and we will be appreciative of your response. Just don’t overdo it with lengthy outbursts that last well into the night. We all need to get to the restaurants before they close.

  • This article was written in September 2006 and originally published on Adaptisation. It is published on The Classical Source, updated and slightly revised, with the permission of the author
  • Leonard Slatkin

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