I’ve just gotten back from an all-Mendelssohn program at the Philharmonic, which has certainly left me feeling more German than I have any right to. Not the hippest concert, but although I did greatly enjoy it, I can’t say the same for the two AA guests who accompanied me. One of them even told me that the entire experience had been “ruined” for her.
So what was the culprit? Surely not the quality of the performance, or Mendelssohn’s inoffensive Italian Symphony. No, it was audience members clapping at the wrong time. Right after the first movement, a group of younger audience members (you know, students, probably—after all, they’re in the cheap seats) conducted themselves most boisterously: being foolishly uneducated as to proper concert decorum, they rudely interrupted the last eighth note’s-worth of the concluding tonic chord with their sincere and grateful applause. Gasp.
Now I’m not a fan of people bothering each other during concerts, but compared to, say, slowly unwrapping a Ricola, clapping between movements seems pretty benign. It’s only recently that the practice has become socially unacceptable; I even remember reading reviews of certain 19th-century works that reference audience applause as a kind of gauge, including a review of Beethoven 7 that comments on the second movement receiving the most applause, etc. And with classical music’s current plight, we have to ask ourselves what kind of person is likely to clap between movements: probably someone who doesn’t normally attend classical music concerts, or maybe even a first-timer. These are the people that orchestras most need to attract in order to make up for dwindling ticket sales; so maybe when they do show up and through their “improper” clapping express genuine delight and appreciation, we could try not making them feel like undereducated, outclassed screw-ups.
My concert guests, who were not particularly well-versed in music but were otherwise smart, culturally-aware individuals, might be excused for not considering the points I mentioned above. But I find something surprisingly puritanical in the intensity of their outrage and offense. Maybe it was one of the few things this couple knew about classical music concerts and they were just eager to show off. Or maybe they clapped at the wrong time once, and that’s why they’ve steered clear of the orchestra ever since.
Today it’s easier than ever to listen to music in the privacy of one’s own home, where you can filter out all the extraneous clapping, whispering, and cough drop-unwrapping. If the orchestra is going to survive, it will have to change, and a large part of this change will most likely involve a whole bunch of features designed to reach out to new audiences, hopefully without resorting to gimmickry. But we “in the know” aren’t doing this developing audience—or ourselves—any favors when we use our knowledge to make others feel less welcome.