The New York Times criticizes, in a review this week of the Korean Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, that “Momentum and continuity were sapped by applause between movements.” This is exactly the sort of traditionalist’s view that ruins the fun of going to a concert.
If a symphony orchestra does not want applause between movements, then it is the symphony’s responsibility to find a way to show the audience. Blaming the audience for reacting to the performance is the wrong answer, and it re-enforces the traditionalist delusion that the audience should know and follow the symphony’s rules of concert etiquette.
For example, the following is from the New York Philharmonic’s web site. There are similar pages on nearly all other symphony’s sites. Some are listed below.
When do I applaud?
There are two reasons to applaud at a New York Philharmonic concert: as a greeting, and to show appreciation. Just before the concert begins, the Orchestra members will all be seated on the stage, except for the Concertmaster – the violinist who sits in the first chair of the first row of the Orchestra. You applaud to greet the Concertmaster when he or she comes onstage. You applaud again a few moments later when the Conductor comes onstage. Any soloists who will be performing will usually come onstage with the Conductor; you applaud to greet the soloist or soloists as well. You do not applaud again until the end of each piece of music, to show your appreciation to the performers. Some longer pieces may have several sections, or movements, separated by a brief, silent pause. The audience does not applaud between movements of a piece. The program will list the movements in each piece, so you will know how many there are; applause is usually reserved for the end of the last movement.
Seriously expecting the audience to follow this laundry list of old etiquette is absurd. The world does not revolve around the symphony. The answers lay in changing the concert experience itself.
Lighting design can address this issue because it allows the orchestra to choose when applause happens. I personally think the symphony should let go of the tradition of silence between movements. Like coat-tails, it is an anachronism. Still, no matter where one wants applause, lighting design can show everyone when to applaud together. The modern audience is well-trained in reacting to lighting changes. Indeed, it is part of every other cultural event, except the symphony. Lighting can lead the audience without condescension. Then the symphony may remove from its web site the FAQ: When do I applaud?
Lighting, like music, is difficult to describe accurately in words. With subtle choices, a good lighting designer can achieve an enriching concert experience without pulling focus from the orchestra, and at the same time make the concert more fun for the audience. This is a simple change that can make the concert experience better for everyone, and it can be implemented immediately.