World-renowned violinist Gil Shaham started his sold-out recital at Copley Symphony Hall with a bang, or more precisely, J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E major. After the pyrotechnic first movement, the audience burst into applause, which Shaham acknowledged with a broad smile. However, Shaham’s famously warm on stage persona began to cool slightly when the audience continued to applaud after the other five movements of the Partita, all three movements of Avner Dorman’s Nigunum, and all nine movements of William Bolcom’s Suite No. 2 for Solo Violin. Even the magic of Beethoven’s Kreutzer sonata was broken when one concertgoer began to clap loudly during a movement. He was shushed roundly. It’s common knowledge even to casual attendees of classical music concerts that one does not clap between movements, much less in the middle of one. So what happened?

In 2010, Alex Ross, the music critic for the New Yorker, addressed the Royal Philharmonic Society and delivered an exhaustively researched, highly entertaining speech on the subject of applause at classical music concerts. The gist is that not applauding between movements is a relatively recent phenomenon; there is no consensus among conductors and instrumentalists on when, if ever, mid-movement applause is appropriate; and that the blanket ban on applause between movements is both confusing and intimidating, especially to those new to classical music concerts. Still, Ross admitted, “I have grown up with the great commandment, and I am always startled when it is broken.”

The problem is endemic to classical music, as popular music concerts do not usually contain multi-movement pieces, and it’s de rigeur for audiences at jazz concerts to applaud mid-performance after solo breaks. And yet, it seems to be less of an issue in opera, where the audience frequently applauds after outstanding singing, such as Stephen Costello nailing the aria containg nine high Cs in San Diego Opera’s production of Daughter of the Regiment, but saves applause for between the acts of more through-composed operas, like Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah. As such, San Diego Opera’s website offers no guidance on when to applaud, merely suggestions for not annoying your neighbors, such as “spritz, don’t marinate” with fragrances. By contrast, the San Diego Symphony devotes an entire paragraph to the subject:

Most of our performances welcome applause at any time. Applause is always welcomed when the conductor steps out on stage. During our more classical performances such a Jacobs Masterworks performances, it is generally most appropriate to wait until the end of a piece to clap. (There are exceptions: audiences will often respond to a particularly bravura movement or soloist performance at a movement’s end; let your fellow audience members be your guide). Keep an eye on the conductor, as he or she usually signals when the piece is over by putting his or her arms down and turning to the audience.

Unfortunately, it’s sometimes too much to audience to pay attention to the person leading the performance. Despite Gil Shaham’s attempt to use body language and truncated pauses between movements to discourage applause, his efforts only resulted in uncomfortable chuckles. The direct approach has been known to work, such as when the conductor at a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio last December simply addressed the audience beforehand and asked them not to applaud between movements. But even when Father William Dillard told his congregation at St. Vincent that applause for the church choir is not congruent with acts of shared worship, there was still a woman in the front pew whose hands drew together automatically when the service was over, though she stopped herself almost immediately.

For the time being, the mixed messages are here to stay. Inter-movement applause will continue to be the butt of jokes, such as this cartoon, Tweeted by @MusicalOverture, and the subject of passionate debate, such as the one that occurred at the Kansas Symphony’s Facebook page. Perhaps the applause is due to concertgoers who wish to appear to the performers that they are more appreciative of the music than the rest of the audience, like those who elbow their way to the front of popular music audiences and block the view of those behind them by flailing to the music, or the man who gave a standing ovation and yelled “Bravo! [sic]”after ever piece Kathleen Battle sang in her 2011 recital. But perhaps the surfeit of applause is due to classical music finding new listeners– a consummation devoutly to be wished. Occasional applause between movements is a small price to pay for knowing that classical music will continue to be performed and appreciated.

Libby Weber

Libby Weber is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow her on Twitter @thelibbyweber or email libbyweber@gmail.com.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.