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Frank H. Wu Headshot

Applause, Please

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I cannot stand snobbery; I doubt anybody can. I am especially embarrassed to catch myself putting on airs, and I admit it happens from time to time.

The other night, I went to the symphony. I brought a co-worker who has become a friend.

Perhaps sensing that I might tend toward pretentiousness, she joked that I must feel as if I am bringing culture to a girl from Toledo. My reply was that I am merely a guy from another hour up the highway, in Detroit.

We heard Tchaikovsky's sixth and last symphony, his Pathetique. Before we sat down, I said to my guest, "Watch. I'll bet some people in the audience won't know. They'll clap after the false ending of the third movement."

If you aren't familiar with this score, it has a fascinating history. Observers have wanted to read into it more than the typical program.

Tchaikovsky died a week after conducting the premiere of this piece in 1893. He either accidentally drank contaminated water during a cholera epidemic or was forced to commit suicide to avoid disclosure of his sexual orientation, aged only 53. The composer dedicated his final work to his lover who also happened to be his nephew, Vladimir "Bob" Davidoff.

As it turned out, a smattering of listeners clapped early. From across the auditorium, you could tell they were chagrined. They stopped quickly. I imagine they looked around to see if they were noticed. (The San Francisco symphony has a handy guide for first-time attendees. It mentions when to clap of course.)

Tchaikovsky seems to have this effect. In his Fifth Symphony as well, audiences often fall for a pause.

Afterward, however, I realized I should not have said what I had. It was smug pedantry -- there is no other type of pedantry -- articulated to show off. Others have noted a potential revolt in our norms. It would be both democratic in spirit and harken back to the time when these tunes were the popular hits.

People who are enthusiastic about classical music should express themselves and allow others to do so. Those of us who care about it as a repertoire to be performed rather than a tradition to be admired should encourage more, not less, applause -- even if it comes at the "wrong" time. The judgmental types have it backwards. If you consider it for a moment, that spontaneous desire to rise to one's feet for an ovation is much more genuine and worthwhile than anything that is obligatory and polite. (If you would like to listen for yourself, try the Evgeny Mravinsky recordings with the Leningrad Philharmonic or the Mariss Jansons recordings with the Oslo Philharmonic.)

I cheer on those who put their hands together before Tchaikovsky's Fifth and Sixth have come to their respective anticlimaxes. They are the true connoisseurs.