SALT LAKE CITY — After taking his seat in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, Mark Wait didn’t dare move a muscle.
The opera house in Germany felt more reverent than any church Wait had ever entered.
“For the five-hour opera, you don't even dare shift in your seat for fear that it will squeak and people will give you the stink eye,” he said.
A longtime announcer for KBYU’s Classical 89, Wait basked in each aria, absorbing every note. It was just the formality he could’ve done without.
“I would like to see the concert hall be a less formal, more welcoming and inclusive experience,” he told the Deseret News. “Going to a concert shouldn't be such an uptight experience.”
But there is one thing Wait believes should never change when it comes to the classical music world: The unwritten — but widely spoken — rule to not clap between movements of a piece.
“We’re listening to beautiful music; don’t interrupt it with this horrible sound. Save it for the end at least so I can hear the complete hour and a half Mahler Symphony the way it was meant to be heard,” he said. “The symphony or any other multi-movement work was written to be played as the complete whole, and I think clapping in between movements disrupts the flow.”
The way Wait sees it, this concert etiquette doesn’t just benefit the listener, though.
“The conductor may want to have just a couple of seconds in between certain movements to let it settle … and reset the orchestra,” he said. “But if we as an audience erupt into applause, then we’ve taken control of that pacing away from the conductor.”
But Utah is home to a couple of conductors, at least, who don't mind what many, including Wait, consider a concert faux pas.
‘If they clap, they clap’
Sitting in his office at Abravanel Hall, Thierry Fischer doesn’t have much time. In fact, he only has about 15 minutes to chat before running off to his next Utah Symphony engagement. He’s supposed to be talking about the symphony’s upcoming season, but the Swiss conductor isn’t opposed to a detour — especially when that detour involves tackling the clapping debate.
“Many people talk about this,” he said, leaning forward in his chair. “You have to ask the question.”
The question — to clap or not to clap — may never be definitively answered, but Fischer’s thoughts on the subject can be summed up in five words: “If they clap, they clap.”
“I don’t feel like I’m a teacher and I have to tell the audience how to react,” said Fischer, who will be conducting Dvorak’s “New World” symphony during theUtah Symphony concerts March 29-30. “If they want to leave after a slow movement is too long, whatever, I’m cool with it. … Sometimes you have more intensity and people stay in silence, and sometimes you have even more intensity and they clap without even thinking (about it) — it just comes naturally. So honestly, I’m the kind of conductor that I take what I get from the audience and it doesn’t disturb me. It really doesn’t.”
But the Utah Symphony’s music director did admit there are times when having pure silence between movements — or even throughout an entire program — can be a conductor’s best friend. As Fischer tells it, that silence can be crucial when moving from one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos to the contemporary music of 20th-century French composer Pierre Boulez.
“Then I have asked … the audience not to clap, to keep their applause until the end (so we’re) able to go from one world to the other … in silence,” he said. “Silence can help us.”
As someone who was always taught not to clap between movements, Barlow Bradford has a deep love for the silence — so much so that he’ll sometimes make a note in his concert programs informing audiences when to applaud. For the Utah Chamber Artists’ annual concert at the Cathedral of the Madeleine, Bradford — who was conductor of the Orchestra at Temple Square from 1999-2003 — asks his audience to save the applause for the intermission and end of the performance.
“It has to do with the way we set the concert up. If there were applause, it would indeed ruin the flow of what we’re doing,” he said. “A lot of choral music is shorter than symphonic music, so you put together your own little symphony by grouping a set of pieces together. … We’re making an artistic statement. And if you’re setting it up as an artistic statement that these groups of pieces really need to be experienced without break, … as a conductor, I think you need to tell (the audience).”
But even someone like Bradford, who cherishes the silence between movements and pieces as much as the music itself, doesn’t mind spontaneous applause once in a while.
“We put it on there when we feel that it’s important not to applaud,” he said. “Otherwise, we let our audience do what they feel like. Bottom line for me … they’re saying that they liked it when they applaud. You don’t want to turn that down.”
It wasn’t always that way
Today many concertgoers, including Wait, uphold the common protocol of withholding applause until the absolute end of a piece. And sometimes, as Wait experienced in the opera house in Germany, valuing that silence can be taken to extremes — like glaring at someone when they’ve so much as shifted slightly in their seat.
But the concert hall wasn’t always that way (as Wait puts it, in Mozart’s time, “people were just there to party and have a good time”).
In the 18th century, concerts were chances to socialize and movements of a symphony were not necessarily played one after another, according to Catherine Mayes, a University of Utah professor and musicologist. Today's tradition of silence didn’t become the norm until around the mid-19th century, when ideas about the “spiritual or transcendent experience that could result from very attentive listening” began to develop, Mayes wrote in an email. In that vein, composers like Felix Mendelssohn began through-composing — writing movements without pause in order to maintain the mood of a piece.
But as concertgoers like Wait preserve this standard, conductors like Fischer and Bradford — while not wanting the standard to completely die away — seem to be embracing the return to a more natural relationship between performer and listener.
“There are times when I think people will applaud because that’s what you do, and there are times people applaud because they are really moved by something — they’re really taken by something and they need to express (that),” Bradford said. “And I think that when that happens, people should applaud.”20 comments on this story
And as Fischer prepares for the Utah Symphony's upcoming performance of the “New World” symphony, how his audience reacts in between movements is the farthest thing from his mind.
“They clap, they don't clap, who cares?” he said. “The most important (thing) is that people love coming to the concert. … That's really what matters.”
If you go …
What: Dvorak's “New World” symphony
When: March 29-30, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple
How much: $15-$96