Alex Ross - The rest is...applause

Gramophone9th Mar 2010
Reinventing the concert: Alex Ross (Photo: David Michalek)Reinventing the concert: Alex Ross (Photo: David Michalek)

The annual Royal Philharmonic Society lecture was delivered last night to a packed Wigmore Hall by Alex Ross, the New Yorker music critic and author of The Rest is Noise.

Whilst the billed title was “Inventing and Reinventing the Classical Concert”, Ross opened proceedings by adding three extra words to the beginning: “Hold the Applause”. These three words turned out to be the crucial ones, and the real focus of the evening’s talk. After all, whilst concert length, venue, onstage dress code and a panoply of other presentation issues might be worthy of discussion, few could deny that it’s the question over when to applaud that sparks the most rage and passion amongst classical concert-goers, and derision by outsiders.

Ross was quick to dismiss the accusation often directed towards classical music lovers that new audiences are frightened away by not knowing when to clap. It isn’t hard to grasp, he pointed out. The real problem with the no-applause-between-movements rule, he said, was that it often seems to be working at cross-purposes to what the music itself appears to want. For example, the explosive end to the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique seems to invite applause rather than silence and the odd subdued cough. After giving a potted history of audience applause and when mid-work clapping stopped (19th-century Germany), Ross concluded that the trouble today is the fact that the same rules on audience applause and the performers’ presentation apply across a huge range of different musical styles.

As for solutions, Ross was keen to emphasise that he hadn’t arrived at the Wigmore with a set of prescriptions. However, he did make two suggestions. Interestingly, neither was linked to clapping. The first was that the invisible wall between the performer and the audience needed to be broken down, and that the way to do that is for the performers to talk to their audiences. His second suggestion was for the concert hall lights to be dimmed, in order to encourage the audience to focus on the stage rather than on their programme notes or other distractions. He also suggested that, were we to axe the rules, we would by no means descend into chaos; instead, audiences would simply work out what felt right, and most of the time they would be.

These aren’t new ideas. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has been running its regular Night Shift concert series for four years now: hour-long performances, starting at 10pm, into which drinks can be brought, and where you “don’t need to worry about clapping in the wrong place”. The concerts have brought in scores of newcomers to classical music, with 80 per cent of their audiences under 35, and a third being students. Meanwhile, the pianist James Rhodes has ditched programme notes in favour of introducing the music himself, explaining what it means to him in a way sometimes more akin to a stand-up show than a concert.

Whilst Ross’s points weren’t new, it was at least encouraging (or indeed sobering, depending on which side of the applause fence you sit) to hear a respected voice in classical music saying that we shouldn’t be prescriptive about how music is either presented or received. Whether everyone in his audience was comfortable with the idea of a rule-less concert environment was another matter – the final question he took from the floor was on how best to prevent the person sat next to you from ruining those magical few seconds of silence after the last note has died away by clapping too early, and it was asked in earnest! However, he was loudly applauded.

Charlotte Gardner

The full text of the lecture is available from the Royal Philharmonic Society website.

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