David Lister: The Week in Arts

Is clapping between movements such a sin?
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The Independent Online

I learned at quite an early stage of concert-going that a real classical music lover coughs between movements. It is utterly infra dig, of course, to clap between movements. Most experienced listeners to symphonies will remain silent between movements. But the true aficionado will cough. He or she does not have to have a cough, of course. In fact, few of the coughers actually do have a cough. The between-movements cough is simply a way of letting one's neighbours know that you know that only the uninitiated will clap, but some form of minor noise is needed to show you know that the orchestra is pausing, and a cough shows awareness.

Over years of attending classical music concerts I have learned the art of throat-clearing and developed quite a knowledgeable between-movements cough myself. It comes with experience.

And what about those poor people who inadvertently clap? They are invariably made to feel like the man in the Bateman cartoon, the recipient of horrified glares.

This week, happy clappers attracted more than a horrified glare. They attracted the wrath of the great conductor Riccardo Muti. The Italian maestro turned round to an audience in Chicago and said: "When you come to a concert, always try to follow the message of the music and not be taken in by the loudness."

Well, it's easier to follow the message of the music if you know the piece as Maestro Muti does. It's also easier to follow the message of the music (or even understand what the enigmatic phrase means) if you are familiar with the piece and are a regular attender of classical concerts. Besides, Riccardo, those people hearing a piece for the first time might not actually know it hasn't finished when there is a climax followed by a pause.

To clap or not to clap? Nicholas Kenyon, director of the Proms, believes that people should have a right to express their feelings. He is not against inter-movement enthusiasm. Neither is one of the BBC Symphony Orchestra's conductors, Ilan Volkov. He said recently that musicians always liked to be appreciated.

My fellow arts commentator, Norman Lebrecht of the London Evening Standard, takes a contrary view. He likens clapping between movements to a mobile phone going off, and believes the pre-concert announcement telling people to turn off their mobile phones should also tell them to desist from clapping between movements.

In the great clapping debate, I side with Nicholas Kenyon. There are rights involved in being in an audience just as there are rights involved in being on the podium or in the orchestra. A spontaneous burst of enthusiasm during a fairly lengthy pause is not the most heinous of crimes. I'm not a between-movement clapper myself. I rather tend towards the argument that it is useful and sometimes uplifting to have some moments for reflection on what has gone before and prepare oneself for a change of tempo or theme.

But I am uneasy about Muti-style reprimands. Surely the aim must be to attract much-needed new audiences to symphonic concerts. The audience at classical music concerts is an ageing one. Even at the Proms, where the Promenade area was once full of students standing at £5 a time, the demographic this year seemed much more middle-aged.

Symphony orchestras desperately needs those new audiences. Can it really be right, once there actually in the building, to make them feel ignorant and excluded because of an apparent breach of concert etiquette?

Show a little respect, Sally

Tonight is the opening of a new production of Carmen at the English National Opera. It stars the talented mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, pictured, and is directed by the film director Sally Potter. Ms Potter has been keeping her own fans informed of rehearsal progress through her blogs. The latest describes the dress rehearsal and, more pertinently, the interval at that dress rehearsal.

Ms Potter writes: "In the interval I went to the toilets, overheard two elderly ladies, evidently regular opera-goers, tearing the production to pieces in their high, posh voices, and wondered who I was working for and why."

What exactly annoyed you the most, Sally? The fact that they were elderly or that they were ladies or that their voices were posh, or that their voices were high? How dare such people go to opera? Perhaps Ms Potter can spell out which sex and age group she expects to see at the English National Opera, and what accent and timbre their voice should have.

* Cinema attendances this summer have soared. The figure is up by 27 per cent on the same period in 2006, and a massive 44 per cent over the summer of 2000. Indeed, this summer's attendances have reached the same level as 1969. Between June and August there were 50.8 million visitors to UK cinemas. The Harry Potter and The Bourne Ultimatum blockbusters certainly helped. And a senior analyst from Screen Digest was quoted this week as saying: "The health of the cinema business boils down to one thing – the health of the films on offer."

That may be the analytical conclusion from the offices of Screen Digest. My analysis is slightly less rosy. The health of the cinema is helped by a bloody awful summer. I wouldn't say a negative word about either Harry Potter or Jason Bourne. But they are even more enticing when it does nothing but rain outside.

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