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July 16, 2008

How Much Applause is Merited?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

This is an advisory. If you or persons within sight of your computer screen are sensitive to ranting, please activate your Curmudgeon Deflection Shields now.

[Pause for shield activation]

Saturday I got dragged into attending a concert at this venue. I'm not big on live concerts because hearing the same stuff via a recording is far more convenient and less expensive.

Not that there was anything wrong with the concert, mind you. The guy in charge was a founding member of the Philadelphia String Quartet and the three twentysomethings who played the Beethoven with him seemed okay too. So I have to assume the concertos were competently played.

What? Donald, the great Blowhard, can't appreciate musicianship? You betcha I can't.

Appreciating performance art is for me akin to appreciating coffee. I can tell bad coffee. But I can't easily distinguish between adequate coffee and great coffee. Same goes for acting, ballet dancing, opera singing or, in the present case, fiddling. Whether something is competently done or great, it sounds pretty much the same to me.

Doubtless some of this is because I don't attend many live performances and lack experience when trying to evaluate. And for music, there's the factor that my hearing has never been very good; even at age 20 I had trouble hearing higher frequencies that most other people hear. Moreover, I'm not musical. My father and daughter were/are, but that gene seems to have skipped my generation.

Because I can't tell okay from great, the applause at the end of the performance puzzled me a little. Many in the audience went semi-berserk, wildly applauding and hooraying.

You say: Because you are such a cultural dimwit, you failed to realize that the performance was obviously fabulous and deserved every huzzah the audience could muster.

Maybe so. On the other hand, I've witnessed the same kind of gushing enthusiasm at the completion of almost every opera, ballet and so forth that I've witnessed. While I'm incompetent to evaluate performing arts (unless the joint is stunk out), the statistician in me finds it hard to believe that almost every performance merits such unrestrained enthusiasm.

This makes me wonder if a characteristic of large portions of audiences is to applaud wildly no matter how good (or average) the performance was. So I'll chalk it up to a form of behavior for a subculture I'm not a member of.



posted by Donald at July 16, 2008


I'm on the same page, in fact a case can be made--sometimes with classical but almost always with other music styles--that a recording sounds much better...not only the fidelity, but the fact that they do a lot of takes until it's perfect.

Regarding the wild applause and "bravos," perhaps some people just get a kick out of doing it, for the same reason that kids love to cheer at a pop music show.

BTW, I wonder what percentage of the US population has an attendance average of at least one classical music performance per year? I read not long ago that, prior to television and rock 'n roll, classical music on radio (and record sales) was a mass-market thing.

Posted by: Yakking Guy on July 16, 2008 7:27 PM

Then again, it could be something about you... I've attended about 6 chamber music recitals in my life, and I found the live performances to be far, far more interesting than just listening to the music on CD. I can't even say why, really – but being in the presence of the music as it was produced turned it into a real group experience, rather than just an individual one. (I wasn't expecting that to be the case, and was surprised at how entertaining the live performances were.)

Posted by: David Fleck on July 16, 2008 8:48 PM

The wild cheering is usually due to people with little understanding or appreciation of music wanting to show just how cultured they are. This reached absurd heights at one of the Met's HD Live opera broadcasts to theatres which I attended this spring. People stood at the end, after the performance was complete, clapping wildly in front of a screen, where no performer could hear them.

Posted by: Thucydides on July 16, 2008 8:59 PM

The same thing happens in pop concerts and for stage performances. I've been to quite a few of either where the applause (and standing ovation) were way out of proportion with the decent or lackluster performance. I agree with Yakking Guy, I think people get a kick out of it. I also think that there is a self congratulatory aspect- people telling themselves how wonderful the performance was in order to convince themselves it was wonderful.

Posted by: mdmnm on July 17, 2008 11:11 AM

There has been some comment about the applause in the classical community itself, and also Broadway.

It all has to do with ticket prices. A ticket to these performances is now much more expensive in relation to the average income of the audience members. At least more than it used to be back when musical theater and classical music were more of a mass-market thing.

In order, then, to validate their decision to spend that much money to attend, many audience members deliver standing ovations. It is a little psychological self-trickery to which I am susceptible as well. "That performance was AMAZING. I am SO happy I decided to spring for a ticket!"

Posted by: karlub on July 17, 2008 11:18 AM

You know what I hate? That charade at the end of a concert when the musician pretends to leave and the audience claps and claps and finally he comes back for another song. Sometimes this process is repeated. And usually, it's a song that the musician would never leave out of a concert.

Posted by: JewishAtheist on July 17, 2008 12:42 PM

Mob meme munching mostly. The truth is that most people cannot make this distinction. The greater truth is that mostly the distinction is meaningless.

To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, "It is not that the dancing dog dances well, but that he dances at all."

Posted by: vanderleun on July 17, 2008 12:53 PM

Not having attended the concert in question there is absolutely no worthwhile comment I could make about that performance. I have attended hundreds of concerts and given hundreds of concerts (I'm a classical guitarist and have also played a lot with singers, flutists, violinists and so on) and of the ones I attended, there were a number that were worthy of whatever enthusiasm you could muster. Others were so bad that perhaps booing was more in order. Others were merely boring. So perhaps we are all, apart from Donald, generalizing from specifics we are not in possession of?

Posted by: Bryan on July 17, 2008 1:37 PM

There does seem to be a self-congratulatory aspect to some of the audience demonstration. One thing you can refer to, in the case of soloist/orchestra performances, is to watch the musicians on stage (or in the pit if you're sitting where you can see) at the end of the performance -- they're in a position to know if something extra special happened. They'll never be effusive in their show of praise (bad form), but bow tapping, foot shuffling, and sometimes plain old clapping can let you know they recognized a brilliant performance.

Posted by: Flutist on July 17, 2008 3:15 PM

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