Why clapping ruins concerts

Intrusive applause can spoil a classical concert, leading conductors tell Simon O'Hagan

The Rest Is Noise festival starting at the Southbank next week promises to be the most original and challenging classical musical event of the year. And not the least interesting aspect of this celebration of exclusively 20th-century work will be to see how audiences respond to music that has a tendency to be much more cerebral than what went before.

Will the roar that goes up at the climax of a great romantic symphony be replicated when half an hour of minimalism has edged to its conclusion?

How audiences behave at classical concerts is an issue that simply doesn't apply at rock or jazz concerts. The performing of classical music carries certain traditions, and they give rise to two particular areas of contention: first, applause between movements; and second, the lapse in time between the fading away of the final note and the first audience reaction.

These may seem concerns not worth expending nervous energy on, but to musicians, and to many audience members, they matter. Classical music is all about the nuances of the playing and the intensity of the experience, and you don't have to be a snob to feel that an ill-timed audience interjection can undermine them.

For the conductor Marin Alsop, it isn't always an issue, but it can be. "When the music warrants applause – ie at the end of the first movement of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto – I don't mind because it is a spontaneous, emotional, instinctual response," she says. "The only time I am disturbed by applause is when it feels perfunctory or obligatory simply because something has concluded – for example at the end of a slow movement of a Mahler symphony."

Colin Currie, widely regarded as the world's most prominent percussion soloist, says the key is the "appropriate quality and timing of the appreciation". He recalls a 2012 Prom when applause between movements got completely out of hand. "It was the National Youth Orchestra's performance of Messiaen's 10-movement Turangalîla-Symphonie. When applause burst out several seconds after the eccentric conclusion to the first movement, I feared the very worst. And indeed it was so, with increasingly awkward applause after each of the successive movements despite the often ambiguous and contemplative nature of many of the movements and their conclusions."

Kirill Karabits, the principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, is broadly sympathetic to the full range and timing of audience response. "Music evokes emotions and people should be able to express them freely – with respect to the performers of course," he says.

Audience behaviour at the end of a piece is a separate matter, it seems. "I am more bothered by those rare times when people feel the need to rush in to applaud at the final note of a piece without regard for the mood if it is a quiet ending," Alsop says.

Of course, conductors can to some extent control audience reaction at the end of a piece, and keep at bay the audience member desperate to make their mark by being the first to applaud. Within the past few weeks, I've seen both John Eliot Gardiner and the jazzman John Surman do identical things at the conclusion of concerts they've conducted – remain with their baton aloft long after the final note has faded away, as if forming a barrier to premature applause, defying anyone to break the spell. On neither occasion could a sound be heard until the baton came down.

Sometimes it's not so much a case of the Rest Is Noise as the Rest Is Silence.

The Rest Is Noise: the Soundtrack of the 20th Century starts at the Southbank Centre, London SE1 (0844 875 0073) on 19 January

@SimonOHagan

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition