Audience nuisance is back

Audience nuisance is back


norman lebrecht

July 08, 2021

Christopher Morley meets a familiar pest yesterday at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall:

CBSO at Symphony Hall *****

Andy Warhol said everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame — or, in the case of one soulless individual at Symphony Hall on the afternoon of July 7, 15 minutes of infamy, bursting into applause the instant an absolutely magical account of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto had reached its ethereal, fairy-tale conclusion. People being people, a few mindless lemmings joined in, all stopping shamefacedly when they could feel the rest of us hating them for having broken the spell.

This came at the end of a performance in which Alina Ibragimova turned her virtuosic solo line into an intimate colloquy with the orchestra, solo members — flute, harp, clarinet, and the finale’s splendid bassoon, among others — emerging to combine with the intimate textures spun by her amazingly versatile range of tone.

But there was also plenty of rhythmic zest, not least in Prokofiev’s alternately fleet and earthy scherzo. We (the aforementioned party-pooper apart) listened enthralled, marvelling at not only Ibragimova’s technique, but also her capacity to reveal all the manifold beauties of this wonderful work.

Another violin-connected piece had preceded the concerto, Heroic Strokes of the Bow by one-time CBSO Composer-in-Association Judith Weir, a response to the painting “Heroische Bogenstriche”, a tribute by Paul Klee, himself a violinist, to the great violinist Adolph Busch.
The strokes here are not only strokes of the violin bow, but also brush-strokes, as this substantial, gripping piece is built upon vivid, almost garish incidents, all communicating with clarity, and many of which we recollect as the ending approaches. Beginning like a Beethoven overture, assertive strings and nobly heroic horns, it moves into cool woodwind sounds, and even sussurating evocations of the Forest Murmurs from Wagner’s Siegfried.

Joshua Weilerstein (replacing the quarantine-restricted Edward Gardner) directed a sympathetic, enthusiastic reading from the CBSO.

And “enthusiastic” is the term indeed to describe his conducting this afternoon. Weilerstein’s beat is always clear, he allows himself callisthenic movement to convey his expressive intentions, and what better symphony to require such an approach than Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony? Driving with energy, even in the taut grief of the slow movement, the work takes so much out of the players, but this performance displayed all the uniform excellence of the CBSO’s strings, Weilerstein wringing every ounce of extra dynamism from his forces in the whirling finale — which, I am pleased to say, followed straight on with scarcely a pause from the Scherzo with which it shares an underlying pulse.

And to think these valiant forces would have to repeat these marvels a few hours later, in this, the last of the wonderful, emergency series of concerts a full-strength CBSO has brought to a music-starved Symphony Hall this spring and early summer.

Christopher Morley

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  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    Indeed, the ending of the Prokofiev’s 1st violin concerto is one of the greatest endings in 20th century music. Shame on the clapper who broke the spell

  • Shame on you says:

    What a horrible and intolerant review, referring to audience members as ‘lemmings’.

    People like Mr Morley are the reason why classical music audiences are dying out: who on earth would want to risk coming to a concert for the first time when it’s highly likely you’ll break some arcane unwritten rule and end up on the receiving end of tuts from dinosaurs in the auditorium and a poison pen review of this sort from a similarly ancient and intolerant journalist afterwards?

    Shame on you.

    • Dr Sasha Valeri Millwood says:

      There is nothing “arcane” about the simple objective of staying as silent as is humanly possible during the performance, which includes (for the avoidance of doubt) the silence at the end. Many of the people who break the spell, far from being ignorant first-timers, are relatively informed yet insensitive boors who want to show off that they (think they) know when the music is finished. Is it too much to ask to wait for performers to ‘relax’ visibly and turn to acknowledge the audience *before* beginning to applaud? And, where the mood of a piece calls for it, observing a lengthy silence at the end (e.g.: Tchaikovsky 6; Schubert Fantasia in F minor; RVW Tallis Fantasia)?

      What *is* potentially “arcane” is realising when it may be appropriate to applaud or laugh in the middle of the performance (e.g.: after an aria in certain styles of opera). In that case, the solution is very simple: if in doubt, hold your peace.

      Even if this were purely a ‘first-time concertgoer’ issue, I would still argue strongly that the onus is upon the concertgoer to make himself/herself aware of the etiquette and observe it, in the same way that one would inform oneself of local laws and customs if visiting for the first time another country or a place of worship belonging to another religion (incidentally, silence is an important feature of many cultural and religious traditions). To that end, it is important that concert venues make expectations clear (e.g.: mobile telephones must be completely *off* at all times during the performance, including during any stage resets between pieces, and private photography is prohibited, expect perhaps during the applause at the end of a programme, and then only if the venue has said explicitly that such photography would be permitted).

      Alas, premature applause is not the only blight afflicting concert etiquette since the return to live performances in May. I have been to many concerts at the Wigmore Hall in the last month, and have been horrified at the number of people who think it appropriate to whisper during the performance (and, for the avoidance of doubt, “performance” includes times when the performer is performing from an offstage position, as Lawrence Power did for the entirety of the first piece in a recital he gave recently… several people kept whispering even when it was abundantly clear that the performance had started). It seems that some people believe (erroneously) that the one-metre distancing currently in force makes their whispers inaudible; in reality, although one might not be able to hear *what* is being whispered, one’s enjoyment of the concert can be disrupted by the sound of whispering, even if it is a dozen rows away.

      • christopher storey says:

        Now you’ve said it twice ! For prolixity and pomposity your diatribe takes some beating

      • Shame on you says:

        You sound like a barrel of laughs. I’m sure that as a “musicologist, music theorist, and composer‑contrapuntist‑pianist who takes an intellectual approach” you are totally in tune with the average audience member.

        • Will Wilkin says:

          Listen to pop music on the radio if you identify with the “average audience member.” Leave some room in time for contemplation if you are there for the art.

    • Joe says:

      Easy enough for a first-time participant in any activity to follow the lead of the crowd, in a concert hall, a chapel, or a pub.

    • Allen says:

      He said a “few mindless lemmings”, not the audience, but you see nothing wrong in referring to “dinosaurs in the auditorium”.

      Over several decades, starting as a long-haired student in the 1970s, I don’t recall hearing anyone being reprimanded by tuts from “dinosaurs”, or anyone else.

      There are many reasons why audiences are shrinking (schools, virtual absence on TV etc), but I doubt if exaggerated “unwritten rules” or unread music criticism is to blame.

      • Shame on you says:

        I have personally been glared or tutted at several times at classical music concerts because I am a young Black man and I guess I don’t look like I “belong”. I swear that the biggest threat to the future of this genre of music is the intolerant and unwelcoming attitude of audiences.

        • Will Wilkin says:

          I hope it had nothing to do with the color of your skin, which is what you imply. And I hope whatever glares you got were easily connected to whatever behavior of yours might have inspired it, so you might reflect on the faux pas and check such behavior in the future, without taking it as an affront to your identity. Boorish behavior is found in audience members of all colors. The “scientific explanation” is probably that they are used to rock or pop concerts where people hoot and holler on any impulse, and where the beat of the music and riff-based or repetitiveness and shallowness of the composition leaves little to be lost in such interruptions.

        • Adrienne says:

          If you’re claiming that this happened in the UK, then sorry, I simply don’t believe you.

        • David Goulden says:

          Glared at because you were black? I highly doubt it.

    • Marfisa says:

      There is all the difference between bursting into applause at a rousing fff finale, and breaking into the long magical silence when music fades away into nothing at the end of a movement. Even at pop concerts, the audience responds differently and appropriately to a loud cheerful song and a quiet contemplative one. The ‘lemmings’ were only the few people who started to clap along with the first idiot – though since the moment had been spoiled anyway, I suppose it didn’t matter.

    • Tommy says:

      Would you be able to present some proof that ‘classical music audiences are dying out’ please?

      Or did you just make it up?

      • Shame on you says:

        Look around you at concerts! The average age in Manchester where I’m based is about 90! I’ve been to two since everything restarted here and I’d say they’ve sold half the socially distanced seats at most.

        • Tommy says:

          I produce concerts, go to concerts and know most of the people involved in the orchestras in the UK. I look around at the data. Ask the orchestras or a body like the ABO – they will happily put you right.
          Also, perhaps you are young and think anyone over 50 must be pushing 90 really. That’s a shame. If you really did look around you, without the prejudice, you’d probably be pleasantly surprised.
          And a couple of concerts post-pandemic can hardly be a proper yardstick for success. Audiences are understandably cautious, like everyone else.

          Attendance at two concerts with distancing is hardly something on which to base a statement like ‘the classical music audience is dying’.

    • Harry Pilling says:

      The reviewer is spot on. I was seated in the row behind the buffoon who broke into applause when it was clear everybody wanted a period of reflection. If you start clapping at the end of Prokofiev’s first violin concerto, with barely a second’s pause, you can’t have been listening properly. And if you are not listening properly, what are you doing in the hall?
      It was a glorious performance of a beautiful work.

    • “who on earth would want to risk coming to a concert for the first time when it’s highly likely you’ll break some arcane unwritten rule…”

      We all venture into new social and business circumstances a hundred time or more in life and most of us are fine with waiting to do as the Romans do in each one rather than leaping to assert our specialness.

      And unlike the pest in the article we don’t intentionally try to ruin the moment after we know what is what.

    • No Sympathy says:

      Maybe people could do the bare minimum of observing their surroundings when they’re in unfamiliar territory. Is it really necessary to demonstrate how “cultured” you are by being the first person to clap?

      Maybe take a hint from the lack of people clapping that it’s not time to clap. Same goes for applause between movements. Either you’re clapping because you’re relieved it’s over (then don’t come) or because you feel emboldened to show off to everyone around you that you are a superior appreciator of art.

    • Will Wilkin says:

      It’s not an “arcane unwritten rule.” There is an emotional depth in great music that, if one is truly immersed in it, requires some silent reflection, absorption and reflection. The instantaneous clapping at the end of a piece has always annoyed me because, like a thoughtful conversation, response should not be reflexive and mindlessly instantaneous but rather reflective and contemplated.

    • David Goulden says:

      No – shame on YOU! Thoughtless idiots like you are the reason I (for one) no longer attend live concerts.

  • justin says:

    I detest classical music nazis who invent make-believe rules out of thin air to impose on everyone else.

    I bloody well will clap when I feel like clapping.

    • larry says:

      this ain’t jazz.

    • HugoPreuss says:

      What if you “feel like” using your cell phone during a performance, or have a loud conversation at a library? There is a difference between common courtesy and Nazis.

  • Steve says:

    Well, it could be worse. In the same hall, I once had some people in the row behind me talk all the way through that last movement. After it had finished I felt that I had to check that the music wasn’t spoiling their enjoyment of the conversation.

    Whilst premature ejaculation can, indeed, be frustrating, I tend to feel that once it has started the spell is broken and can’t be recaptured. It seems to me better, in those circumstances, to fill it out than to have that awkward situation where it sounds as though the audience can’t make up its mind whether it liked the performance or not. So, had I been there, I would probably have been amongst the lemmings.

  • Karl says:

    Did the conductor signal the audience with his hands to withhold applause? I’ve seen YNS do that and get the audience to withhold applause for an entire minute.

  • Anon says:

    What a descriptive, well-written review! Great details and interesting observations from an informed point of view. Bravo!

  • Nik says:

    Morrison in the Times on Tuesday also complaining about applause during Don Giovanni.
    There is the old adage, you don’t realise what you’ve got until it’s gone. Well, the reverse also seems to be true: you don’t realise what you hated until you get it back.

  • Alan says:

    A disgraceful, arrogant and shocking first paragraph.

    Who is the reviewer, or anyone indeed, to tell a person when exactly they can applaud at the end of a piece.

    This is exactly the kind of stuffy, high brow nonsense that turns people off classical music.

    Grow up for God’s sake.

    • Will Wilkin says:

      Deep listening is like a dream, we don’t want to be suddenly and instantly transitioned to crowd noise after serious music that deserves reflection and contemplation.

  • Monsoon says:

    Scolding people who are likely first-time ticket buyers for expressing their appreciation and gratitude to the performers…

    And people wonder why classical music audiences are shrinking.

  • Y says:

    The Clap (2005):

    Dir: Geoff Lindsey / UK / 2004
    An obsessive music fan wants to be the first clapper at the end of every piece. But when he inflicts the clap incessantly on his idol, the virtuoso decides to fight back. Directed by Geoff Lindsey, the film stars Steve Furst (of more recent fame with the Orange adverts) and won the Golden Heron (Best Film) for Montecatini International Short Film Festival.

  • Kyle Wiedmeyer says:

    I once saw a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances in Milwaukee, and at the end the conductor Edo de Waart let the gong ring while I and another audience member had a kind of inane, hesitated clapping battle before anyone else made any noise. I could hear it on a radio broadcast of the concert a year later…

  • Patrick says:

    They liked the performance. Get over it.

  • Corno di Caccia says:

    Bursting forth with applause immediately after a sensitive, quiet, ending of a piece of music is a sure sign of a musical ignoramus in the audience. Sadly, though, it happens too frequently; rather like the over-zealous continuity announcers we get on tv who can’t wait to tell us what’s on next, often obliterating some beautiful music which ends a moving drama or film when the credits roll. Of course, an experienced conductor can take the initiative in such cases by a slow deliberate dropping of the arms, thereby choreographing the onset of applause at the end of a performance of such a piece as mentioned.

  • Peter says:

    “Audience nuisance is back.”

    Could just have written: “Audience is back”. Some people apparently don’t like that. They want to be alone in the museum and see classical music die as they try to kill enthusiasm wherever they see it.

  • Stephen Maddock says:

    One of the better chants from Arena prommers at the Royal Albert Hall came after the quiet ending of the first work in a Berlin Phil / Abbado Prom in the 1990s had been instantly followed by premature congratulation:
    “Arena to the person with the clap – keep it to yourself”

  • Matias says:

    What is this nonsense about music critics driving new listeners away? They don’t read this stuff in the first place.

    Unfamiliarity with the music because of its vitually total absence fro their day-to-day experence is inflicting the damage. Young people brought up on pop/rock need a period of acclimatization and they are simply not getting it.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Maybe some audience memebrs were mentally unhinged by the heroirc strokes of Ms Weir:

    It sounds like a rehearsel where the players try to figure out who has his/her part upside down.

  • Emil says:

    You perform music in public for – or with – the audience. You don’t have any right to tone police how they react. They’re not there to indulge your vision of what the concert should be. You can demand respect – as in being silent during the music – but not the phony ‘reverence’ around it. That goes from ‘my audience is applauding improperly’ to ‘my audience is badly dressed’ to ‘my audience is laughing out of place because they’re reading surtitles’

    Besides, does applause have any meaning if it is rigidly guided by convention? I’ve seen conductors get furious at the audience for applauding at the end of Tchaikovsky’s 6th 3rd movement – what do you expect? Tchaikovsky purposefully writes a massive, rousing, false finale, and the audience is supposed to sit stone-faced like at a board meeting by the deputy chief accountant? Let the audience be.

    And as an audience member, you are part of a community. You don’t get to dictate how other people enjoy the music either, so long as they respect minimal rules (silence during the music).

    • Dr Sasha Valeri Millwood says:

      But the silence at the end *is* part of “the music”.

    • Will Wilkin says:

      Your logic about “you don’t get to dictate how other people enjoy the music” falls apart when you fail to realize the instant-clappers very much dictate that there will be no moments of silence for the audience to reflect on the experience of the music. It is not a “stuffy rule” but rather something we need when transitioning out of a deep state of listening, not so different from not wanting to awaken suddenly to loud noises and bright lights. Listen deeply and you’ll probably better understand this is not a rule but a need.

    • Wannaplayguitar says:

      I agree with Emil……a classical concert is not a hallowed church service with timed and rehearsed responses. Mobile phones, loud talking/whispering throughout, ok no. The occasional exctatic oddbod getting it wrong in the stalls, nobody really cares. Perhaps the orchestral managements need to advise audiences beforehand….please count to 10 before applauding the end of this profound composition. But there will always be someone who gets there first.

  • Just another reader says:

    There are people that want to be the first ones to clap. They might be regulars, and you can be sure that they are aware of each other. They don’t want to be beaten so they need to be quick like a race horse out of the gate. Maybe this time, one of the clappers faked out one of his competitors to get him to clap where he shouldn’t have. Whoops, the non clapper chalks up a win for once. The only solution is to have a red sign like in the studio. Silence, concert in session. Then, a flashing clap now sign when the coast is clear.

  • Bernard Jacobson says:

    I sympathize warmly with Christopher Morley, though I have to say I’m surprised if he’s surprised. The problem is one I’ve been up against many times. One of the most recent of those occasions was also the funniest. At a Philadelphia Orchestra concert a few years ago, during intermission, I explained as politely as I could to a lady that her conversation during the performance was distracting to me despite the distance between our seats. Her response has become, for my wife and me, a memorable catchphrase. “Me, talking?”. she said. “Oh, no
    –I was asleep!”

    Bernard Jacobson

  • Victor Trahan says:

    Premature … elation is not covered in the Merck Manual – ‘Concert’ Health Handbook.

  • Gerald Martin says:

    I haven’t been able to attend a concert in decades; but shouldn’t the printed programme have a polite reminder or two on audience etiquette?