Greg Sandow says we should trust the [classical music] audience and I agree.
The proof, right now, is in another audience group: classical ballet. In this art form there is a continuous tradition of acceptable applause within works. Audiences recognise with confidence when in the performance those moments are occurring. And those moments are flexible and optional, so the applause can genuinely reflect a level of enthusiasm as well as the prevailing mood. As a result, ballet-goers experience none of the angst about clapping that’s encountered nearly everywhere in classical concerts.
As Greg suggests in his commentary about concerts, knowing when to applaud is partly to do with the particular character of the work and partly to do with body language (choreography in the case of ballet). Take these together and you’re never left in any doubt as to whether it’s ok to applaud or not. Newcomers seem to work it out pretty easily. I don’t recall as a child being told when and when not to clap at the ballet.
So you’re at Sleeping Beauty and it’s the final act with Aurora’s Wedding, which is basically a glorified set of entertainments. Each little item is self-contained, the changes of style and the clear breaks in music signal that. More important, each divertissement ends with a little flourish and the dancers actually acknowledge the applause. It would be churlish not to clap in a work that’s so clearly designed for this response.
Or you’re at Swan Lake and Odile has just completed 32 fouette pirouettes. So it’s mid-number and the music’s powering on, but who can resist applauding such a tour de force, which entered the choreography quite gratuitously and has remained as a virtuoso gesture ever since.
But then maybe you’re watching the latter part of Act I of Nutcracker and the drama is progressing continuously. Tchaikovsky’s music signals that by eliminating the grand cadences and moving seamlessly from section to section. The choreography will signal this to; no one stops to take a bow. And no one feels the urge to clap. There are sections like this in the other ballets I’ve mentioned too, sections where drama overrules mere diversion, sections where we’re drawn into the emotion of what’s happening rather than simply being entertained by party pieces or impressed by virtuosity.
And I can’t think of a single instance of a ballet performance where the audience has misjudged the moment. (I’ve referred to well-known ballets, but my observations have been no different for new or unfamiliar ballets.)
None of this really hit home to me until a couple of years ago when I went to see a double bill that was entirely set to concert works. I was hearing, in the ballet theatre, music that I’m accustomed to hearing in the concert hall. Furthermore, in one instance, I was hearing music where concert audiences are notorious for “getting it wrong”. (Can you guess what it was?)
And that’s where it got really interesting, because this ordinary ballet subscription audience didn’t get it wrong. They knew when it made sense to clap and they knew when to stay quiet. Even in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony! (The other music was Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.)
That was helped a great deal by some very musical choreography and its body language – it’s easy to recognise movement that’s cadential or applause-seeking versus movement that’s clearly about to head right on. But it’s also right there in the music. And the ballet audience (only some of whom would be concert-goers too) was accustomed to watching and listening for cues. Add to this the fact that at the ballet you’re allowed to applaud and you can enjoy unerring good judgement in an atmosphere of confidence. Even when the applause was more of a smattering it came across as discreet, not as the insecure, half-hearted, “shouldn’t we be clapping now?” sound that you hear in many orchestral concerts.
In concerts, where there’s no choreography, musicians’ – and especially conductors’ – body language becomes the cue, especially in relation to the old bug-bear of applause between movements. I’ve lost count of the number of times I've despaired as a conductor has visibly relaxed all sense of tension or “forward movement” after a slow movement, practically inviting the uncertain to hazard some applause. (This is invariably half-hearted and lame-sounding because the visible cue from the stage contradicts what the musical instincts suggest: that this is a quiet moment, a respite.)
So what do concerts need in order to be like the ballet? Just three things.
1. A sense of permission.
The ballet has a couple of hundred years head start on us, but we need to cultivate a relaxed attitude to the whole business of responding to music (and any noise that may emerge from that). This, I think, is a very different matter from wanting to encourage a quiet listening environment with no distracting extraneous noise. It’s the difference between the woman who jingles her bracelets because she loved the finale and the woman who jingles her bracelets because she’s digging around in her handbag for a cough lolly to unwrap. Slowly.
2. We need to learn to really listen and look for the cues.
I wonder sometimes whether some of those people who pride themselves on not clapping in the wrong place aren’t dependent on counting down the movements or checking their watch against the timings in the program rather than simply listening and watching and “getting it right” because the right moment is evident and inevitable. Indeed, I know of one concert-goer who seriously suggests that this is exactly what audiences should do: count movements and keep an eye on our watches. I could cry.
3. Concert performers can and should “shape” audience behaviour.
Many are, in fact, excellent at this – there are plenty of examples of masterly body language. But others seem to rely on the audience adhering to convention, forgetting, for example, that the spaces between the movements are part of the performance too. These are like rests, which, as one of my teachers once told me, need to be “played” as much as the notes. After the composer has done his or her job then it’s up to the performers to shape our response and to move us in all sorts of ways, whether that’s to applause or to silence.
Postscript. There is one instance where even a ballet audience will be caught on the wrong foot. But it’s a piece in which nearly everyone, everywhere, is caught out: La Spectre de la rose, danced to the notorious Invitation to the Dance in Berlioz’s orchestration. I think we just have to blame Weber there, because even with a plot line and the choreography to help out, you’re guaranteed there’ll be applause before the end.