Last autumn, Barack Obama hosted an evening of classical music at the White House. Beforehand, he said, "Now, if any of you in the audience are newcomers to classical music, and aren't sure when to applaud, don't be nervous. Apparently, President Kennedy had the same problem. He and Jackie held several classical music events here, and more than once he started applauding when he wasn't supposed to. So the social secretary worked out a system where she'd signal him through a crack in the door. Now, fortunately, I have Michelle to tell me when to applaud. The rest of you are on your own."
Those of us steeped in the classical concert-going tradition know not to applaud between movements. It's simply not done!
But as Alex Ross points out, it wasn't always that way. Audiences applauded after each movement to show their appreciation, and sometimes even demanded the movement be repeated.
While the latter might not happen nowadays, the former is a quite natural reaction to anyone who attends concerts for any other musical genre. There the tradition is to clap after each song (or piece). And if there's a particularly good solo in the middle, it's appropriate to clap during the music as well.
This counter-intuitive convention of the concert hall is one of the perceived barriers to those that otherwise might be interested in classical music. So what's the solution?
Well, what if we went back to the earlier tradition (and the current tradition for every other genre of music) and applauded after each movement? I'm not sure, but I think it could be a good thing for at least three reasons.
1) If you had a strong positive reaction to the music, you could release it through applause, further enhancing the experience.
2) For those unfamiliar with classical music in general, the applause could provide clues as to where the ensemble was in the work, and with the help of the program newcomers could better follow the work.
3) It would lower the anxiety level of not only newcomers but seasoned concert-goers as well. Because here's a little secret: when the work's unfamiliar, it's not always evident when the work's finished, or just a section of it is.
It's a great idea, but the question always is -- who's going to do it first?
In the meantime, here's a tip for classical newcomers: when in doubt, wait for the conductor to face the audience. Or if it's a chamber music concert, watch for the players to put down their instruments and look at the audience. Better yet, just don't be the first to clap.