07 August 2011

Standing Ovations

The first time I encountered that habit certain audiences in central Europe have of synchronised clapping, I was horrified.  To me it smacked of collective organisation rather than individual response and seemed an indicator not of genuine appreciation but of a desire to conform.  It was only after attending an exceptional concert at the Vienna Musikverein that I appreciated this type of applause. The synchronised clapping developed its own momentum and finally burst into a shower of scattered fragments – like nothing other than a dazzling firework breaking into a cascade of stars at high altitude – as the conductor came back on stage and led an encore.  Never before had I seen an audience register its genuine appreciation of the performance so vividly or an encore so eloquently demanded.

I am not an encore person.  I seethe when a memorable performance is diluted by an inappropriate encore, when the memory of a deeply moving work etched by a riveting performance is rudely erased by a couple of seconds of cheap virtuoso thrill, when a carefully-planned programme is completely upended by a glaring anomaly tacked on to the end, and I am a firm believer in the adage about audiences always leaving a concert wanting more.  I am angered by the current habit of making encores routine.  I can't think of the last time I attended a concerto performance in Asia when the soloist didn't then come back and give us a fistful of encores delighted, it would seem, to be freed from the tyranny of having to share the limelight with an orchestra.  Too often one is obliged to question the sincerity of the concerto performance when, clearly, it is the encore which matters most to the soloist and which has been the most ardently prepared.  I can rattle off countless cases where, after a dire concerto performance, a soloist has suddenly transformed into a persuasive musician with a few choice encores. 

Then, of course, there are the totally unbidden encores.  Soloists who come on for their first curtain call and, brushing aside sparse and fragmentary applause, proceed to rattle through a veritable plethora of well-prepared encores.  Most memorable, for me, was the case of a particularly appalling conductor with the Malaysian Philharmonic who, after a catastrophic performance, decided not to leave the stage as, clearly, the applause would not survive her exit, but went straight into the prepared, but equally catastrophic encore sequence.  There was a time when musicians in the MPO regularly would sit out the whole concert backstage only to take to the stage after the concert was officially over to play in a well-prepared encore; whenever I saw that happening I willed the whole audience to stop applauding.  How cruelly presumptuous and horribly patronising of a conductor to assume an audience is going to want an encore.

Sometimes, though, encores are fully justified.  No encore is more welcome to me than the one where, demanded by a genuinely enthusiastic audience of a reluctant soloist or tired conductor, an on-stage discussion ensues between musicians to select a movement to be repeated from the earlier programme. 

But, apart from the synchronised applause of the central Europeans, how can the musicians on stage know the collective will of the audience?  They are certainly not going to pick up any clear message from some of the irritating habits that have grown up in recent years especially among Asian audiences.  Every audience contains some twits who feel that it is they, not the musicians, that we have all gone to see, and like nothing better than to make a spectacle of themselves when it comes to applause.  How I detest that habit of raising arms high above the air like some Christian supplicant pleading for Manna From Heaven.  I am equally irritated by the race to be the first to clap (even if it involves interrupting the last note) and the contest to clap the loudest.  I also object to those who can't be bothered to applaud, those who stop applauding after a couple of desultory strokes, and those utterly despicable people who get up to leave while the musicians are still on stage; a habit which is just about de rigueur amongst Hong Kong audiences. 

I admire those who are not afraid to express their dislike when a performance is bad. I never forget a performance in London's Royal Festival Hall in which a soloist was booed off stage, or a Prom where the programme from a visiting orchestra was deemed to have been patronising; the whole audience simply shouted out a spontaneous "NO" when the star conductor suggested they play another Brahms Hungarian Dance as an encore.  There's a nice story about Beecham (who else?) who, after some outspoken comments in the press had alienated an audience to the extent that when he came on stage he was greeted by total silence; undeterred he turned solemnly to the audience bowed his head and intoned in a sombre voice, "Let us Pray!".

The most powerful message an audience can send to those on stage that they have appreciated a performance is the standing ovation.  Just two or three times in my life I have been at concerts where the audience (including myself) rose spontaneously to its feet.  Hundreds – possibly thousands - of times I have attended concerts where, after a while, one or two over-excited souls have got up on to their feet and, in most instances, have encouraged the others to do likewise - so many audiences are like flocks of sheep, unable to think independently.  (For some reason whenever this happens I am put in mind of George Orwell's Animal Farm.) If it's not an immediate and collectively spontaneous response, how can it be genuine?

It was at a concert in Singapore last Friday that I encountered some truly daft audience antics yet, in retrospect, I realise they sent a very clear message to the stage; even if that was not the intention.  Sadly, neither Lan Shui nor the Singapore Symphony were on particularly good form, a fact immediately apparent from a dire performance of the Prokofiev Classical Symphony, leaden, soggy and very rough around the edges.  And had it not been for Yevgeny Subdin's fluent and articulate playing, the Rachmaninov Rhapsody would have been equally lacklustre; at least his encores were appropriate, even if the second one was not in response to any clear signals from the audience.  The silliness came after the Goldmark Second Symphony.  A daft piece, by any standards, made up of pleasant tunes strung awkwardly together in a barely coherent sequence, its utter obscurity thoroughly warranted.  Lan Shui was unable to grasp any architecture in the work – not his fault, I suspect – and although this had certainly been rehearsed rather better than the Russian pieces in the first half, the orchestral playing was still pretty scrappy, the violins chasing around in a mad scramble rather than as a well organised pack in the manic finale.  Once this admittedly entertaining drivel was over, the audience applauded warmly, clearly showing appreciation of the effort that the musicians had put into it.  I think there was also a sense that, God willing, we'd never hear it again, so we may as well applaud generously this (hopefully) once in a lifteime event. 

But when Lan Shui came shame-facedly on stage for a third curtain call (involving a bit of farce with the leader who had decided that it was high time for the orchestra walked off), some twit near the front (where else?) rose to his feet and, if that wasn't enough, raised his hands high above his head in fervent applause.  Was he a member of a party from a centre for the hard-of-hearing, or had he just woken up from a long slumber which had started sometime during an earlier concert?  Cowed not just by his elevated presence but by his ghastly habit of turning round to make sure everyone else in the audience knew he had a pair of legs on which he could support himself unaided, a woman near him also rose to hers. 

And then it struck me what message this was sending to those on stage.  By getting to their feet, those two members of an audience numbering around 1000, only drew attention to the vast mass of sedentary patrons stoically refusing to demonstrate any enthusiasm for the performance they had just heard.  Perhaps no greater insult can be sent to musicians than a non-spontaneous standing ovation from just a handful of the audience.   


  1. Thanks for the informative and entertaining post, Marc. I share your feelings about synchronised applause, and grimace in embarrassment whenever I'm in such an audience (and am still waiting for a Musikverein epiphany).

    I do think you should go easy on those who do not clap, however. I've often thought that we should come up with a better way to show appreciation at concerts. Breaking into a percussive, cacophonous noise seems so wrong in that situation. It's fine for sporting events and rousing speeches, but isn't there more harmonious way to express ourselves after a sublime and subtle musical performance?

  2. Nice point, Kevin. It is odd that we show appreciation by aggressive percussiveness. Perhaps we might start rubbing our hands together instead of clapping them. For Scandinavian audiences (and possibly even Canadians!) this would serve the added advantage of getting the circulation going before venturing out into the night!

    Interestingly I was at a two-piano recital last night which ended with the Ravel Mother Goose. The hugely appreciative audience (and well deserved their praise was) let out an audible sigh and a murmured "yes" before breaking into applause.

  3. Are you absolutely sure you're not getting that confused with another performance??