“Guest Blog” #3 – Marc Feldman

May I present…the third in a set of three "guest posts" from our ASOL Fellow, Marc Feldman.



"Soul of the Age! / The applause! Delight! The wonder of our stage! / Thou art a monument without a tomb.” Ben Jonson…

lot has happened since my last blog. Such is life at the PSO… Once the
last note of a concert series is played, we are on to the next concert,
next project or next season. However, that doesn’t mean that what has
transpired shouldn’t warrant attention and comment. Before I venture
into commentary on the wonderful pre-concert showcase of Jennifer
Higdon’s music (now an ancient 2 weeks ago) I’d like to dedicate this
blog to concert rituals, what they mean to some and what they may have
come to represent to others.

week I attended a phenomenal concert. Anybody who was there can attest
to the sheer power and virtuosity of the Pittsburgh Symphony. Their
rendition of Elgar’s Violin Concerto, with Gil Shaham as soloist and
under Leonard Slatkin’s direction was a complete journey into British
romanticism. Gustav Holst’s, “the Planets” had the audience on the edge
of their seats. I heard comments and wows; people swept up in their own
images of those planets portrayed by Holst and his “Suite for LARGE
Orchestra.” People talked, shared happy smiles and thumbs up during the
music itself… I can’t help but believe that this is what the composer,
not to mention our musicians, wanted to achieve.

was difficult to contain enthusiasm during this concert. Applause rang
forth at the end of every movement…much to the dismay of seasoned

brings us back to the discussion about concert rituals. One of those
rituals is waiting to acknowledge artists until the end of a complete
work. Actually, we have adopted the custom rather recently in music
history. We have become used to having silence between movements. It is
considered as a moment of concentration; a moment of tension to keep
the continuity of the music following… well… in a perfect world, yes…
however, these days the time between movements is reserved for coughs
and candy wrappers,… we don’t seem to mind and find it more appropriate
that if one is to make some noise, that it be between movements. And,
yet… should someone show appreciation through applause at this crucial
moment, it causes murmurs of disapprobation for some perceived lack of
respect, or worse some lack concert “etiquette.”

must admit that even I, ritual breaker that I am, might have wished for
that moment of breathlessness…of silent expectation… at the end of the
second movement of Elgar’s concerto or between certain movements of the
Planets. However, the masse stupefaction of an audience is rare. You
never know when it will happen for real. Even these moments are
often marred, this time by the connoisseur breaking into wild bravos at
the exact millisecond after the ultimate stillness of pieces such as
Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony or Mahler’s Ninth, when a few moments of
quiet reflection might be more a propos.

what I am getting at here? What I am I for? Applause, no applause?
Should enthusiasm be ritualized? How do we initiate the new comer,
because it was obvious that last week’s concerts had a fantastic share
of new comers to the concert hall? Shouldn’t we rejoice in this fact?
Isn’t this what we want? Don’t we want these music lovers to come back,
be curious again…? My question to the initiated is; how do we pass the
flame? Do we do so with indulgence and sharing of our love for music?
Or, do we do so with a codified set of do and don’ts? After all, we
know that these rituals are part of why many people stay away from
classical music. The general perception is that you have to understand
orchestral music to appreciate it.

And … anyway where did this particular ritual come from?

Mozart’s time people cheered after a great show of virtuosity or an
original improvisation, like jazz concerts today. Beethoven’s music was
played one movement at a time often breaking up symphonies, concertos,
sonatas and solos. Believe me the audience applauded or booed after
every movement. Schubert often played in people’s homes, Brahms in a
tavern or two, with the Strauss family waltz kings… people waltzed!
French audiences were particularly vociferous. We know of the riot at
the premier of Stravinsky’s “le Sacre,” but this wasn’t the only time.
The Italian public would storm the stage (and at times still does, I
witnessed this in the Puccini Festival in 1984!) when they didn’t like
an opera.

are exceptions to this concert anarchy. Mendelssohn and other composers
started to write pieces that took this into account. They eliminated
breaks between movements when they didn’t want the musical stream to be
broken. Sacred music was never applauded in churches. But, mostly
people didn’t applaud in the presence of royalty, unless the king or
queen themselves applauded. Indeed much of today’s rituals; from tails,
to standing up at given times and withholding acknowledgment for the
artists, came from the epoch when nobility attended the great concerts.
Governments liked the protocol and continued. Finally, with the advent
of great maestros and great orchestras pomp became the norm; it was
part of the show. As orchestral music moved away from the popular
classes and into high society it was considered proper decorum to
emulate the powerful. And so it went and continued on in this manner.
It worked as long as one generation taught the next. But, it hasn’t
always been this way.

would be horrified to know that the first movement of the Fifth was met
with a few coughs and stony silence. The great soloists; Ysaye and
Kreisler, would be thoroughly depressed if their cadenzas didn’t elicit
standing ovations at the ends of movements.

I once saw a funny old sign backstage at the Paris Opera exhorting soloists not to encourage “applaudissements”
in the middle of pieces by otherwise grandstanding and showing off.
Only three curtain calls and one encore allowed! Any overtime caused by
their showboating could be docked from their pay!!!

I guess the “inappropriate” applause in during last weeks concert, had
a historical basis for existing and novices maybe be considered the
real connoisseurs…for the sake of an argument. In the end nobody is
totally right or wrong.

the other hand, I know that I love to see the hall full of new faces,
engaged in the wonderment of a great work played with conviction. It is
up to us purists to help pass the flame (nicely) and share the musical
wealth, lest concert halls become really silent…"

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