Breaking the Silence: The Conductors Craving Your Applause

Why are classical music audiences so restrained? Two conductors believe the way to attract younger crowds is to encourage spontaneous clapping.

Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble conductor Barak Tal.
Ilan Spira

Our concert commences and the orchestra, conductor and soloist start the five-song cycle. The performance is incredible and emotional. Yet now, at the end of the first song, something that isn’t supposed to happen happens: a number of those listening start applauding. Loudly. The rest of the audience tries to hush them, annoyed about the rudeness they have just witnessed.

If you attend classical music concerts regularly, you’ll recognize this story. But, really, what’s the problem? Why is it improper to applaud and show emotion? And who decided what the proper behavior is meant to be?

The accepted rules of behavior in concert halls are completely different to those at other types of musical performance. The audience is expected to show restraint, to remain perfectly silent and only applaud at permitted places. In other words, at the very end.

If you want to attend a classical music performance, you must first learn and memorize these rules before taking your place in the concert hall. This isn’t exactly the way to attract young people to classical music concerts – which is, after all, the goal of many in the classical music world.

The older crowd is generally quite conservative and finds it difficult to accept change. Nonetheless, there are other voices being heard from inside the system, those wanting a change in the status quo. These voices are encouraging us to break the silence, and believe it is possible to do so.

Barak Tal founded the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble in 2001. Since then, he’s been the music director and principal conductor for the small orchestra, which won the Landau Award for classical music last year.

Tal is a graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music at Tel-Aviv University, with a degree in conducting. For years he’s tried to freshen up the traditional classical music concert format. “As a conductor, I’m interested in receiving immediate feedback from the audience,” he says. “The orchestra plays on the stage for 40 minutes without knowing what the audience thinks. Why is it permitted in opera but not in the concert hall? If there’s applause in the middle of a work, I’ll turn to the audience and tell them, ‘This is how we know you’re enjoying it,’” says Tal.

Alienating audiences

Communicating with the public is important to Tal. He sees it as the means of breaking down the barriers between the audience and performers. “If we want a young audience, we need to help them,” he believes. “This arrogance alienates them. It’s possible to explain about the works – not just in the program notes but through something more personal and human. At one of our concerts, we talked with the audience about the encore. There was a brief debate, which actually got quite emotional. Ultimately, it was decided we would play the first movement of the work again and everyone was happy,” he recounts.

Tal wants to make the classical music concert experience more friendly, almost like a rock concert. “My ambition is for the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble brand to be something people come to hear – and it doesn’t matter what we play. At a rock concert, they come to see a performer without knowing exactly what he plans to perform. The concert doesn’t need to turn into a circus, but this relationship is the heart of the matter,” asserts Tal.

Israel Symphony Orchestra conductor James Judd
Ilan Spira

British conductor James Judd is the musical director and principal conductor of the Israel Symphony Orchestra in Rishon Letzion. He believes it all starts with education. The adults in today’s concert halls were introduced to classical music when they were young, but this music is found less and less in schools nowadays and that’s a danger, he says.

Judd conducts and runs educational programs in the United States and Europe, and tries to influence the younger generation to open up and love classical music and concerts. As for applause, his position is clear: it’s the right thing to do. Judd says he disagrees with colleagues who stop the audience when they applaud.

In Beethoven’s time, he notes, the audience applauded after the first movement “and we know that sometimes they decided to repeat a section if the audience wanted. It seems all the strict rules of behavior arose during the 19th century, because of the French bourgeoisie and its code of behavior,” he says.

Judd doesn’t know any younger musician who’s disturbed by applause during a work. “Any musician who doesn’t have enough concentration to deal with it is probably not such a great musician,” he argues. “It’s an excellent way to drive away the young crowd: If we want to bring in a young audience, we must break down the barriers and act the way they want. If you listen the way you should be doing, you usually want to respond. It’s human nature – and composers wrote for people, not other composers,” notes Judd.

Idith Zvi, the artistic director of the Arthur Rubinstein International Music Society, isn’t convinced. “There’s no doubt we need to bring young people to our concert halls. How? I’m not sure I know,” she admits. “As for applause, I think it depends on the work. There are works where the continuity is important and it can break the concentration. It also depends on the performer.” In Mozart’s day, classical music was closer to the world of pop culture, she says. “But over the years, this music has distanced itself from popular music, and I do feel there needs to be a sense of a break from the ordinary and an entry into something more ceremonial,” says Zvi. “And yes, that also includes the occasion, dress code and discipline,” she adds.