It’s high time to reconsider applause at classical concerts

Violinist Sarah Chang

Why are classical musicians and audiences so picky about the right time to applaud?

Most believe that applause spoils the mood and flow of a piece or set of pieces, especially in the case of “serious” music.

Perhaps its time to loosen up.

At Thursday’s Toronto Symphony Orchestra performance, conductor John Storgaards put his hands up to request silence when a substantial number of people in the capacity audience began to clap after the first movement of Sarah Chang’s performance of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1.

He did it again during Beethoven’s Fifth.

In both instances, the music was so energised, so compelling that, if each movement had been an opera aria, everything would have stopped for prolonged applause and shouts of approval.

If it were jazz, patrons would be clapping and whistling even more often — say, right after Chang’s long, searing cadenza (the place in a classical concerto when the soloist gets to showboat for a few minutes).

Thanks to its TSOundcheck programme, the Symphony audience usually counts a good number of people in their 20s and early 30s (who I don’t see at traditional chamber music or solo recitals). They are ready and willing to respond emotionally to — and share the power of — what they are receiving from the stage.

At any non-classical venue, their smartphones would be recording the performer’s every move. They would be tweeting and texting their OMG reactions. They would be yelling and cheering.

So imagine the shock of the classical concert hall, where all must be silent in revering Die holde Kunst.

It’s only been that way since the 19th century (except for some craziness whenever, say, Franz Liszt walked out on a stage).

In the times of Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, audiences weren’t shy about registering their approval or horror immediately. When in love with a piece, they demanded singers repeat an aria, or that an orchestra repeat a movement.

That kind of engagement in a classical concert is anathema to any modern purist. Admittedly, if I could choose my ideal live-performance environment, it would be a silent one.

But I also know that we each have a fundamental need to respond to stimuli. I’ve cried at live concerts, and, on Thursday night, I nearly started to applaud after the first movement of the Beethoven 5 — because it was such a thrilling start to a well-worn piece of music.

I hear time and again from people who are intimidated by the classical concertgoing experience. They think they have to dress up. They think they have to know something about the music before they go.

And, I’m sure, sitting in a seat, trembling in fear that this might be the wrong time to applaud, is also one of the factors.

If Floria Tosca can stop in the middle of a murder scene to take applause and cries of Brava! from the audience, so can Sarah Chang.

I’m more concerned about making sure that new people experience the magic of live classical music than about requesting vows of total silence. I’ve included a video by Tim Lautzenheiser that presents the opposing point of view.

What do you think?

UPDATE: I’m adding some comments I received via Facebook:

  • From violinist Julia Wedman: “I totally agree! As an audience member, I only dress up for concerts if I am in the mood (which is rarely), and I clap between movements if I love something. As a performer, I love the spontaneous clapping, oohs, ahs, and bravos from audience members who are totally engaged in the music and can’t help themselves. It’s one of my favourite parts of a concert.”
  • Violinist Maymi Seiler: “If, as a performer, you cannot feel the electricity in the audience between the movements, it may not be he right profession for you. If, as an audience member, you are not allowed to react to this electricity between the movements, you may just want to listen to music at home instead of daring to sit with the audience who ” knows better” – this would be a sad case of us performers playing to nobody in about 10 years. I personally feel joy in those moments when my audience cannot help but clap. That is live music.”
  • Agent Marilyn Gilbert: “I am with you all the way on this one…too many rules and customs that make classical music concerts stiff and inhuman.”
  • Bonnie Booth of the Ontario Philharmonic: “I agree! I totally get lost in the music. Do not know how those sitting behind me feel though.”

John Terauds


12 thoughts on “It’s high time to reconsider applause at classical concerts

  1. I think it depends on the work. I will prefer listening in silence through Tristan, or the Ring without any applause interrupting (until intermission). But I have no problem with applause anytime for an Donizetti opera, even in the middle of an aria. For piano music, I think it will be exciting for a pianist to hear shouts of bravo after a very flasy improvised cadenza in say a Mozart concerto.

  2. I think there are many inappropriate moments for applause and it shouldn’t be so difficult to simply engage in this kind of ceremony between artists and public, that is a concert, by applauding because you contemplated and concentrated in what you’ve listened, instead of wanting first of all to promptly show for everybody your enthusiasm. The case of comparing this ambient with a time when a theater was a center of entertainment can still be anachronic, since it would still be inappropriate to applause during a silent and mystic (by his own content) moment in a Mahler’s symphony, written already in another context. I, personally, take seriously the case of contemplation, even if enthusiastic contemplation – that is, I don’t think it’s a matter of being a mummy, but of being concerned in enjoying music without exchanging it so recklessly for wanting to show something while it still hasn’t finished.

    BUT… I think it’s fair to think that at least before XIXth Century there WERE events in which the public could interact much more with the artists, in concerts opened for requests, etc. Today, we have this permissiveness to applause singers in an opera, but in concerts it prevails one only standard, that is this sacred ambient. I think we don’t need to exclude this kind of ambient, but we should have – I like to think – more kinds of ambients, some in which there could be different kinds of interaction without any problem. Outside concerts have something of it, but they’re often kitsch and uninteresting. Didactic concerts are something more relaxed and the public is always happy for learning something. And concerts that interact with requests are also very nice (Gabriela Montero does it, improvising on themes given by the public). Recently, there was also an interesting and modern experience commented here:

  3. Mr. Choi, Whatever position one may take regarding the relative merits of applause during works of art music, the “…shouts of bravo after a very flashy improvised cadenza in say a Mozart concerto” of which you speak would be as inappropriate as the stylistically mismatched cadenza applied to a work of 18th-century classicalism.

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  5. John Storgaards must have read your article, he did not stop the audience to applaud during the Shostakovich at the Saturday TSO concert. There were more applause after the 2nd movement. Sarah Chang was on fire with the Shostakovich concerto, excellenet performance.
    I can’t remember if audience applaud during the Beethoven 5, probably not but still a very refreshing view of this masterpiece.
    Thanks for your review of the Thursday concert.

  6. It’s difficult not to want to burst into spontaneous applause after the first movement of, say, Walton 1: if that’s how audience members feel they can respond to a performance, let them!

  7. I say let ’em clap! and let them take pics once the piece is over – so they can post on facebook or whatever – free advertising for the TSO!

  8. I cannot believe this is still an issue. If the audience is supposed to be hushed and reverent after a quiet piece, then it’s the business of the musicians to MAKE the audience want to BE hushed and reverent by playing the piece in a way that provokes that response. It’s not an automatic cookie you get just for being up there. Clapping — or not — in the appropriate way because you feel you should instead of responding sincerely is like being directed by a lover precisely how he wants you to fake your orgasm. No thanks.

    Besides, who in their right mind imagines that ALL three-movement pieces should receive precisely the same canned, automated reaction from an audience? When I was a kid, no one would have clapped exactly the same way for two different rock songs, so why shouldn’t two different Brahms symphonies merit equally unique reactions?

    I swear old-style classical music is like a seance anymore. Don’t speak, don’t move, keep your fingertips on the table and don’t clap or cough or else the dead spirit of Beethoven will flee! 😛 If the musicians just want to be up there and commune with his dead spirit without me distracting them, I can leave.

    Thankfully, this attitude IS dying out, albeit slowly. But dying it is, and good riddance.

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  11. I’m amused at the difficulties that the common folk of the land seem to have with the notion that they can’t behave in any way that pleases them at a performance of high art. Yes, I used the expression. Classical music is highly structured, nuanced and takes a large investment of time to understand in comparison with popular music. When I first began listening to classical music, I had to hear to Mahler’s 5th symphony some fifteen times before I felt that I understood it to any significant degree. I had to learn what words like ‘sonata’, ‘rondo’, and ‘scherzo’ meant. I can imagine trying to undertake that with a hoopin’ hollerin’ good-ole boy in the seat behind me, spilling Coors on himself, spitting on my neck and screaming in my ear. No, thank you.

    The concert hall is one of the last refuges from the philistine hordes, and, trust me, it will remain so. It has little to do with age or money – I have as few dollars as I do years. It has to do with education, upbringing, intelligence. And if strict etiquette manages to filter out a few primates, it does the rest of us a service.

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