I attended last night’s penultimate concert of the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Season – Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. The rendition was simply splendid: the playing brilliant, the singing lustrous, the chorus precise, warm and immensely clear in their diction. Basically, it was a great concert – even greater because the outdoor, somewhat casual setting gives me an opportunity to pontificate on one of my favorite subjects: applause.
See, you’re probably thinking – especially those of you who know me – that I am setting up to chastise the hoi polloi for their inter-movement ovations. Nothing could be further from the truth! Those of you who really know me (you lucky little cherubs) know that applauding between movements of a symphony or concerto (especially one written prior to the 20th century) is something that I whole-heartedly endorse!
For me, the best “inappropriate applause” last night came at the moment in the score when the development goes slamming into the recap of the colossal first movement. You know the spot:
What better place to applaud? The thing that I enjoyed most about applauding right there (which I did) was that it felt like that gut reaction of clapping when a really great rock guitar solo in a concert matches exactly (artlessly?) what you heard on the album – not the knowing applause of the cognoscenti that follows a solo jazz improvisation. At least, that’s what it was in my mind anyway.* I just thought that such great, vehement playing of 2’s against 3’s really deserved some applause!
Alex Ross wrote a famous article on this subject in The Guardian, but unfortunately he stopped short of endorsing a new era of applauditory freedom. See, the thing is, I wouldn’t be so very much in favor of applauding between movements were it not for the fact that composers specifically designed their pieces to elicit applause at the ends of movements. So many letters have been handed down to us from antiquity in which the great composers take considerable delight in having a first or an inner movement applauded so much that they even had to repeat it.
Of course, the big problem is that certain places demand applause while others achieve a far greater effect by forgoing it, even in moments of exalted excitement. In Mr. Ross’s article, he mentions the case of the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony – which happened to be on the radio as I was driving home from the concert last night, incidentally – and which goes a little something like this:
Seems like the perfect place for applause, right? Well, it would be, were it not for the fact that this exuberant finale happens to be followed by the most heart-wrenching suicide note of a movement ever penned:
To me, the big effect here is the startling, knock-the-air-out-of-you change of mood (or, let’s say “affect“). The colossal weight of the fourth movement loses all of its impact if it doesn’t shock you out of the march’s vigorous mood – the effect should be akin to dousing a red hot iron with the Arctic Ocean. I prefer to time it something like this:
or maybe even spaced a little closer together, just to be audacious. Whatever it takes to give the audience even an inkling of Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky’s inner turmoil.
But how to do it? How can one possibly stop the inevitable outpouring of cheers and clapping at the end of a thrilling march like the third movement? I think that an explanation before the beginning of the entire symphony would be a great place to start. Explain and demonstrate to the assembled spectators just what it is that Tchaikovsky was trying to achieve with this stark juxtaposition and why they are in for a deeper, more thrilling emotional experience if they take the plunge into the fourth movement without any pause.
So, I suppose that my solution to the applause conundrum is to have audiences be completely educated and enlightened to the point where they can anticipate every nuance of a piece and respond to it according to my exact taste. And when I’m Music Director of the World, that’s exactly what I intend to have happen.
Speaking of Alex Ross, is everyone aware of this?
*[Ed: “Are you saying “boo” or “boo-urns”?]