To Clap Or Not To Clap – By Leonard Slatkin

I don’t feature guest writers at Adaptistration very much; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had one before now. Nevertheless, during some recent time in Nashville, I crossed paths with Leonard Slatkin, the Music Director for the National Symphony and recently appointed Music Advisor for the Nashville Symphony. Eventually, the conversation made its way to the issue of applause and following that discussion I invited him to write something for Adaptistration in order to share his views on the topic. I’m happy to report that he graciously accepted the offer…

To Clap Or Not To Clap

By Leonard Slatkin

Concert season has opened 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 this will occur.

slatkinI was reminded of the difficult choice the audience must make in this regard, with a few concerts that I conducted over the past few weeks.  In London, I was privileged to work with the outstanding pianist Lang-Lang.  He played the first concerto by Frederick Chopin.  The opening movement is a typical bravura statement from the heart of the romantic era.  Although there is no formal cadenza (a portion of the piece where the soloist is on his or her own for quite some time) there are numerous passages that do not include the orchestra.

When we concluded the movement, several thousand persons in the Albert Hall burst out with fervent, appreciated applause.  Lang Lang acknowledged them with a bow.

A few weeks later, I was involved in a performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto with Gil Shaham.  This was part of the National Symphony’s opening subscription concerts.  The Brahms does have an extended cadenza in the first movement.  Very showy and played brilliantly.  On the first night, the audience applauded after the movement, but, surprisingly perhaps, the subsequent two audiences refrained from any kind of outburst other than coughing.

A few nights later we were performing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Joshua Bell.  Once again bravura work with a cadenza full of pyro-techniqes.  Not only did the audience cheer vociferously after the movement, they actually awarded it a standing ovation.  We still had two movements to go.

I cite these examples because it is clear that audiences do not understand the etiquette that goes along with their participation as part of 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 usually that it interrupts the flow of the entire work.  History tells us that this is a false assumption.  At the premiere of the 7th 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.  It was common for the audience to express its appreciation and demand, if not a repeat of a movement, at least an encore of another selection.

Most of the time, this dilemma is usually 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 third movement of this work is an explosive march.  If this were the finale, audience reaction would be thunderous.  More often than not the audience cannot contain its enthusiasm and breaks into an audible reaction. Even now, there are many new 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 it is also a suitable way to break the tension and acknowledge publicly an appreciation of the performance.

What happens when no one applauds?  The audience coughs and finds other ways to release the buildup of sitting for up to 25 minutes in silence.  I remember a performance of the 1st Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto with Byron Janis that we did in Madrid.  When the first movement ended, about four or five people started to clap, and 2000 other shushed them.  Then they coughed and talked.  It was five minutes before we could begin the next movement.

It is even worse in the Opera House.  When Tosca finishes Vissi d’Arte, shouts of Brava rain down from the rafters.  An ovation can continue for minutes.  What happened to the dramatic flow of the text, not to mention an awkward 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.

How do the performers feel about it?  I can only think of a couple that prefer the silence.  And this is mostly the etiquette of the recital, which is a more intimate setting.  We are delighted that the audience is enjoying the performance and wants us to know it.  It also gives us time to catch our breath and readjust 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 that actually is inappropriate.  There is a famous spot in the 5th Symphony by Tchaikovsky (him again).  The music is loud and comes to a halt even though there are still about three minutes of music remaining.  Unless one is actually trained as a musician, or already knows the piece, this place can be construed as an ending.  Audiences around the world start to applaud here.  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.  If you are moved by the performance or work, feel free to show the performers.  That goes not only for cheering and applause, but the opposite as well.  With the complaints we sometimes get about new music, it is now very rare for the audience to lustily boo.  I miss that.  How are we to know which music to bring back if we do not hear from the listeners?

So clap away.  Just be sincere in your appreciation.  Those of us on the stage will know that you really mean it and we will be thrilled.  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.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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7 thoughts on “To Clap Or Not To Clap – By Leonard Slatkin

  1. I couldn’t agree more with Maestro Slatkin. Why shouldn’t audiences be encouraged to show their appreciation for a performance, or to share their emotional response to the music? I always smile very broadly when I hear people clap between movements at a concert. Why? Because I know that there are people in the audience who aren’t used to the “traditional” concert ettiquette, who aren’t used to coming to concerts. These are the exact people we want to bring into concerts so that we can expand our audiences beyond our traditional base. The more clapping, the better, I say.

  2. I’ll never forget an American Symphony Orchestra League conference in Chicago in the 90’s. The keynote speaker (I can’t recall his name) made this impassioned speech about the field’s stuffiness and focused, in particular, on the “ban on clapping” as outdated and self-defeating. He got a standing ovation. That night, after a rousing 1st movement of some blockbuster symphony, a few neophytes in the front of the audience started to clap and were quickly reduced to silence by the deafening anti-sound of non-clapping disapproval surrounding them.

  3. One potentially interesting perspective on the applause issue might be the question of whether the audience is applauding the music or the musicians. Obviously, in most cases, it’s some of each, but bear with me.

    In rock concerts, it’s common for the audience to applaud not just at the end of a song, but at the beginning when they recognize it. This tells me that the beginning-of-song applause is primarily an expression of “we love this song and we’re happy you’re playing it” and the end of the song is partly for the song, partly for the performance, and partly for the band. Extended applause at the end is often a combination of “we love the band and we loved the show” with “we want more music.”

    In classical concerts, since the orchestra is already on stage they don’t get applauded, although the conductor and soloists get applauded when they enter. I wonder if this is purely an issue of practicality or if there’s a certain sense of “the musicians are technicians and the conductor and soloists are artists.” The fact that the musicians practice and warm up on stage prior to the start of the concert also reinforces this idea– the orchestra is portrayed as not worthy of a grand entrance, and as simply going about their business until the arrival of the Maestro. I should stress that I’m talking about the meaning of the customs, not the beliefs and intentions of the individuals — few people present would actually hold those beliefs, but I’m suggesting that classical music institution contains them structurally.

    Next we need to look at applause before and after movements. The origins of the No Applause rule seem to come from a quasi-religious veneration of The Music, dating from the first half of the 20th century when classical music was in the business of setting itself up as “highbrow” in contrast to the popular “lowbrow” music of the burgeoning middle class. (Alex Ross has a great post on this subject from 2005: The music is not to be interrupted with applause, nor welcomed with applause, because its greatness is simply to be received and revered. Applause at the end of the piece, then is more an expression of appreciation to the musicians for delivering Greatness rather than applause for the music itself. Of course degree of applause is proportionat to the enjoyment of the music itself, but that’s because a great piece is an especially fine gift. At a fine meal one does not applaud the food, one applauds the chef.

    Ultimately, we generally applaud people, not works of art, and in the modern classical concert hall we have a conflit between applauding to praise the performers and remaining silent out of respect to the Work, and what I will call the Myth of Transcendant Greatness usually wins out except under extraordinary circumstances, i.e. a soloist who does such a fine job of delivering a spectacular moment that portions of the audience is unwilling contain themselves, and even they they are often shushed. It’s also worth noting that the shift to a primarily historical rather than contemporary repertiore means that the composer is usually not alive to be applauded. You occasionally hear applause in movie theatres, which I think is actually applause for the cast, crew, and director in absentia, which makes sense because they’re usually still alive somewhere.

    This rule of imposed reverent silence is silly. Audiences are smart enough to be silent when it’s really needed for appreciation of a piece, and reverent silence between sections is absurd, painfully snooty, and based on a philosophically bogus premise.

  4. Food for thought, thank you. I’d much rather have them clap than cough! They need to release tension, which is why they cough. Maybe we should all get up and stretch between movements…

  5. What about German audiences which allow a pause between the end of the piece and their response to it? Teutonic digestion, as it were?

    This past weekend, during an outstanding performance of Kernis, Strauss and the Brahms Violin Concerto (Midori and the Jacksonville Symphony), one member of the audience could not wait even for the last sound to fade before slapping his hands together. It broke the mood and interferred with the music.

    It’s wonderful that people enjoy what they hear enough to get physical about it, but I wonder how much they are concentrating on the piece, sometimes, and how much they are just happy it’s over!

  6. Rather than address the message, I would rather address the messenger. Leonard Slatkin, in writing about of this often confusing dictum of performance practices, proves again that imagination and humor are always the best medicine. From his inspired “Viennese Sommerfest” offerings in Minneapolis almost three decades ago, to his incredibly imaginative and vibrant sonic recordings with the Saint Louis Symphony, and on to his enlightening PBS radio shows that, in so many ways, remain me of another Leonard (Bernstein), this energetic man has brought nothing but absolute charm and grace to the artform of symphonic music. Our world is a better place because of him.

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