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Give classical music a hand. Or don't?

January 31, 2009 |  8:00 am

ApplauseClassical music has a reputation, deserved or not, for being stuffy, fussily concerned with manners. The tuxedos don’t help. And then there are the glares when some poor, unsuspecting soul claps her hands between movements.

The issue of applause isn’t new, but it’s been raised recently by pianist Emanuel Ax on his blog. Many of Beethoven’s and Mozart’s movements, he says, end with a flourish, and the composers expected audiences to respond to the fanfare.

The highly regarded musician writes, rather sensibly, “I really hope we can go back to the feeling that applause should be an emotional response to the music, rather than a regulated social duty.”

I remember when the Orange County Performing Arts Center opened in 1986, The Times’ classical music critic Martin Bernheimer took it upon himself to educate the masses about concert etiquette. To this Orange County resident — who generally enjoyed reading Bernheimer — we were the rubes from the ’burbs. I just reread Bernheimer's piece and I am reminded that while he wagged a finger at Orange County’s “glittery throng,” he said that audiences elsewhere weren’t much better.

And Bernheimer wasn’t alone ...

Zubin Mehta and Isaac Stern separately showed their disapproval to audience noise from Orange County’s new stage. The attitude then, as now (Ax excepted), is that classical music should be appreciated in thought. Bernheimer concluded:

The general admonitions are simple: Listen first, and listen carefully. If cheering seems imperative, cheer. But, if possible, cheer at the end of the piece.

After years of enjoying classical performances, I know the deal. You’d better be aware of how many movements are in a piece. If that’s a bother, just wait till the whole auditorium is clapping and join in.
But I admit there are times when a lively movement ends and I wish I could show my appreciation.

This topic has been on my mind for a few months, since reading a fascinating New Yorker article by Alex Ross about how classical music became so serious. I learned that in the 1700s, members of the audience were royal or rich and socially roamed theaters during performances. As Ross explains:

The nobles often possessed considerable musical knowledge, but they refrained from paying overt attention to what the musicians were doing. Indeed, silent listening in the modern sense was deemed déclassé.

What changed, Ross says, is the decline of the aristocracy after the French Revolution:

The bourgeoisie increasingly took control of musical life, imposing a new conception of how concerts should unfold.... By applauding here and not applauding there, the bourgeois were signalling their membership in a social and cultural élite.

Ross writes that Cal State Long Beach professor emeritus William Weber  comes to the defense of the middle class in his book The Great Transformation of Musical Taste: Concert Programming From Haydn to Brahms.” Weber explains that the middle class was rejecting aristocratic values.

Two centuries later, those rules still apply. Can today’s audiences heed Ax and change? It’s tempting to borrow from our new president and glibly say, “Yes we can.” I’m not so sure. It feels like it will take new audiences to bring new habits. But please, if a movement moves you, clap. You might get shushed, but someone else might join in. It has to start somewhere.

-- Sherry Stern

Photo credit: Times file photo