We have been down this road before [written by Leonard Slatkin]

Written by: Leonard Slatkin

Classical Source welcomes Leonard Slatkin – music director in Detroit and Lyon – who has sent us the following article, which we happily publish as a talking point…


Leonard Slatkin. ©Steve J. Sherman Over the past few years, it has been my pleasure to occasionally write for Classical Source. It doesn’t hurt that, for the most part, they enjoy my concerts and recordings.

But there are two matters that continue to irk me. One is the obsession with antiphonal violin sections and the other deals with applause. I have commented on these items previously but no matter how hard I try, these issues are still on the table.

For the time being, I will let the split trebles of the orchestra alone but I want to give the clapping thing one more go.

Recently, I attended a performance of Puccini’s Turandot. The production was pretty much traditional and the singing very well turned out. As usual, everyone was waiting for ‘Nessun Dorma’ and it seemed that each member of the audience would be cheering and clapping vigorously at its conclusion. Indeed, that is what occurred.

However, the conductor chose to move right on, as the composer intended, with no pause to allow the public demonstration to continue. This meant that the material that is so carefully crafted at the conclusion of the aria was not audible, nor were the first two lines sung after that moment. Sometimes the music is totally halted to allow for this demonstration but of course this means totally ignoring what the composer wrote.

My question is this: Why is it acceptable to have not only the music but also the storyline interrupted during an opera, but God forbid someone applauds after the rousing third movement of Tchaikovsky 6 and the critics go postal?

Not once have I read anything about banning vocal appreciation by the audience at a staged production. Would we approve if a spontaneous outburst occurred during, say, Hamlet’s soliloquy? Of course it would never happen but isn’t my Turandot experience the equivalent?

It appears that there is a double standard going on. We certainly know that applause between movements of a Beethoven Symphony was common during the composer’s lifetime. No one seems to know exactly when the unwritten rule of silence came into play. Audience appreciation is something that should be encouraged, as long as it is motivated by genuine emotion. After all, if we hear a performance of the 1st Paganini Violin Concerto, all the pyrotechnics of the opening movement deserve recognition. It this does not occur, something worse takes place: a lot of coughing.

Not that the audience is ill, it is just their way of releasing the tension that has occurred as the result of intense listening. If you watch an orchestra closely at this time, you will see some of them giggling in bemusement. This is hardly the reaction one would want prior to the next movement. Clapping simply shows all of us that the effort has been appreciated.

In the oft-cited Tchaikovsky 6 example, might I suggest that a long pause between the third and fourth movements is exactly what is needed, whether there is applause or not. Would one rush into the finale of Mahler 9 if the audience erupted after the wild third movement? And shouldn’t we all be allowed the time to properly prepare ourselves for the anguish that is to come?

As for the Turandot incident, one is simply not going to ever curtail the star turn for the tenor. They expect it, audiences want to do it, and even though it violates the composer’s intention, there is not much you can do about it.

Leonard Slatkin
For The Classical Source
13 May 2014

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