Applause is an essential part of the concert experience
Along with a first smile, and a first backwards crawl, a baby's first clap is one of those early landmarks that gets parents excited. Clapping is a fundamental part of human nature and its presence at musical performances is more than a simple sign of admiration and gratitude. It's a ritual with roots deep in the recesses of human consciousness, a physical gesture that connects every age and every culture. Whether as a 'ripple' or 'thunderous', it's not surprising that the unique sound of applause is so often described in elemental terms.
Applause comes in a variety of forms. I've given concerts where the reaction answers the Buddhist kōan about 'the sound of one hand clapping' but fortunately most audiences show more appreciation. Some like the synchronised method. This starts out fine but becomes awkward once people wonder what to do next - a dilemma resolved by the synchronised accelerando. The Dutch give standing ovations every time, whilst in some countries what you think is a standing ovation turns out to be people making an early move for the exit. This prompted one conductor to remark: 'You only see the back of me and I only see the back of you!' My favourite applause is whatever feels like a return to that basic childlike expression of unbridled spontaneous enthusiasm. We strive to avoid the predictable in performances and it's special when audiences respond with a similar absence of convention.
People clap at concerts before anything has happened, making a noise before the orchestra does and, more interestingly, doing something together before the orchestra does. It's a ceremonial joining together reflecting a readiness on the part of the public. The community has been joined. It doesn't happen in the theatre but I'm always impressed by the discipline and understated curtain-calls of actors, whose unsentimental, dare I say non-operatic refusal to outstay their welcome gives the play a straightforward and clear-cut conclusion. It's not diluted by the sometimes embarrassing feeling that people are only still clapping because there are still people on stage. I wonder however whether audiences not encouraged to applaud for any significant amount of time feel robbed of the possibility of taking their own part in the occasion. Applause can be the chance for audiences to perform themselves. Some, like the regular in the front row of one hall who always shouts 'bravo' with his hands raised high above his head, take that opportunity very seriously.
Clapping isn't always a happy circumstance. But whether a slow handclap at a boring game of cricket or a gesture of dissent in Belarus for which you can be arrested, it's always a symbol of togetherness. This unifying quality gives it its strength. Rarely engaged in alone, its purpose embraces the group dynamic. A baby's joy in 'pat-a-cake pat-a-cake' is about actively joining in with life, an interaction that I imagine creates a greater sense of belonging. That belonging is one of the things that makes a concert experience so powerful too.
Leading conductor Mark Wigglesworth is equally at home in the opera house as in the concert hall – and, indeed, the studio, where his acclaimed Shostakovich symphony cycle for BIS is nearing completion. In 'Shaping the invisible' Mark shares his passion for music and his fascination with the philosophies and psychologies that lie behind it. (Photo: Ben Ealovega)