“When Applause Isn’t Welcome”



The New York Times

Sunday, Aug 20, 2000

City Section, Soapbox Column



BOB DYLAN wrote the words, but the music was a classical cycle in the purest sense: seven songs in one dramatic arc, performed by the soprano Sylvia McNair on the stage of Carnegie Hall.

The audience clapped as if each song stood alone, as if John Corigliano hadn’t composed this cycle, ”Mr. Tambourine Man,” as a unit, as if the venue were Madison Square Garden with the 60’s bard himself on stage with his guitar.

For some concertgoers that night, it was like mourners cheering at a funeral between stanzas of a dirge.

It is the age of the ”applaudience,” in which the concert hall’s new constituents bring their manners from the amplified world of stadiums and clubs. No more can singers rely on patrons to behave in the decorous style the conservatories still teach.

In a vocal recital these days, cues to clap are less likely to come from the music’s meaning and mood than from the fact that a star is onstage. Or, as in the Dylan case, that the lyrics had star quality too.

What’s caused the change?

The tenor Jerry Hadley thinks it reflects the loss of ”active listening” as a cultural skill.

The pianist Steven Blier says it signals a collective discomfort with silence, a need to reward a singer instantly.

The soprano Lisa Saffer points to the dying out of the core postwar recital audience of Europeans so steeped in the art song tradition, and the languages in which the songs are often sung.

Drawn to the form by celebrities with ”pop-crossover” appeal, new audiences have no way to know what is expected, nor do they get consistent signals from the stage. ”Like,” Mr. Blier says, ”why applaud here and not there?” Confusing, no?

Traditionalists can find themselves so outnumbered that any display of rhapsodic involvement with the music, or even the long customary show of restraint, feels artificial or priggish, not to mention drowned out.

Recital manners come and go with the times, as they should. Change means life and in that sense, is welcome. But not change born of ignorance.

With the sorry state of music education generally and a new season just ahead, it’s time the experts weighed in. Of course it would help if they could agree first.

The pianist Martin Katz, who accompanied Ms. McNair that night in March, says he misses the old etiquette and can’t remember his last performance without ”applause between everything.” Although he concedes that the new audience style is fine most of the time, he thinks the continual interruptions ”definitely diffused” the intensity of the Corigliano premiere.

The composer, who was at the recital, disagrees. He loved the spontaneity, defending the audience’s right to react at will. The concert hall, Mr. Corigliano says, is no place to humiliate or shun.

Mr. Blier and the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne are classical pioneers in the once-forbidden practice of addressing the audience from the stage. With warm, unthreatening styles, they often provide context, explain foreign lyrics and make requests. Both say the practice can greatly enhance the performance experience.

But a recital is not a lecture, cautions Franz Xaver Ohnesorg, artistic director of Carnegie Hall. With all the cell phone and cough patrol now necessary, the artistic experience risks getting lost in ”a catalog of dos and don’ts.” He prefers written program instructions with appealing graphics.

One problem: not everyone reads the program.

Another: incidents like one in February in which a singer, in the style of divas past, stopped a well-meant burst of applause during Mahler’s ”Songs of the Wayfarer” with the scolding gesture of a traffic cop.

Performers of the modern school like Ms. Horne, Mr. Hadley and Dawn Upshaw like to defer to their fans. All insist that applause is fine during cycles that lack dramatic development or thematic connection from song to song. High endings or ”zippy” tunes can provoke a ”brava,” Ms. Horne points out, and who wouldn’t welcome that?

But all three will intercede in gestures or words for compositions like Schubert’s ”Winterreise,” those that demand a surrounding space in time that becomes part of the work itself. The scholar and composer Edward T. Cone, who calls that a ”frame of silence,” takes a harder line. He does not oppose quiet laughter or a burst of affection for a moment sublime, but if a composer writes a cycle, he says, he or she means it to be performed as a unit.

In the absence of a consensus, professionals like Mr. Blier and Michael Barrett, co-directors of the New York Festival of Song, keep experimenting with various techniques.

On stage at the 1998 premiere of Ned Rorem’s ”Evidence of Things Not Seen,” they canceled intermission and asked the audience to withhold applause until the end of the 36-song work. They also offered extra restroom time before the music began. In April, thick black lines appeared on the ”texts and translations” pages of the festival’s program to pinpoint for the audience the ends of cycles and groups.

And always, when a work requires silence, Mr. Blier asks for it, though he admits: ”It’s like telling children to be still. Sometimes they will and sometimes they won’t remember.” No threat to autonomy, it seems.

Consider, too, a subtler point, suggested by words Mr. Cone once wrote, ”the superlative performance that enjoins silence rather than applause.”

According to Dominique Jando, co-artistic director of the Big Apple Circus, one rare thing can send even a rowdy, peanut-crunching circus crowd into a spontaneous, awe-drenched hush: a genuine encounter with art.

”Either you touch the heart,” Mr. Jando said, ”or you don’t.”

Brooke Kroeger is the biographer of Fannie Hurst and Nellie Bly and an associate professor of journalism at New York University. Of the vocal recital, she is just a fan.

© The New York Times

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