THE BLOG

Vive la Différence

02/18/2014 03:53 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2014

They come in all shapes and sizes. They range in age. Their dress can vary from jeans to tuxedoes. The audience for classical music has always been somewhat diverse in appearance and appreciation. I am often asked about the differences in Europe, Asia and the United States when it comes to reactions from the public.

This question came to mind recently when I conducted two concerts with my orchestra from Lyon. On a Thursday night, we played an all-Russian program at home, and the next evening we repeated the same concert in Grenoble, a little more than an hour's drive away. The audience in Lyon varied in age and dressed mostly casually. The crowd to the southeast was quite a bit older and came in suits.

Both groups loved the concert. There were demands for an encore from the soloist. Not too much coughing occurred, even though it was the middle of February and there was a lot of quiet music being played. So to me, the two audiences seemed mostly similar. However, there was a distinct disparity when it came to the form of appreciation shown to the artists at the end of their performances.

In Lyon, when the public enjoys the concert, around the third curtain call they begin a rhythmic clapping. It seems to be spontaneous, but I always wonder how they know when to start and what tempo it will be. Somehow the audience members have the identical metronome mark within them, and this form of applause lasts for quite some time. It is not like the sometimes half-hearted attempts to start "The Wave" at sports events.

In Grenoble there was no sign of this ensemble clapping. Applause was more than generous, but the imitation of a drum corps was nowhere to be found. This city, which like Lyon, hosted the Olympics, is in the same region as our home, the Rhône Alpes. So it would seem that there would be little difference in local characteristics. Not having time to explore the city, I know nothing about the customs in Grenoble. But certainly they do not behave the same as their compatriots from Lyon.

And so I began to ponder other differentiations in audience behavior. For the most part, Asian and European audiences do not head for the doors at the end of a concert in what is sometimes described as a "walking ovation." This practice seems reserved for the States. Whistling as a sign of appreciation is a definite no-no, as it is equated with booing. Although whistling is acceptable at rock concerts and jazz presentations, the classical etiquette demands a slightly more sedate set of responses.

One thing seems universal: audiences are not always sure when to clap. Even in the great European capitals, one can encounter applause between movements or, in the case of Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony, during the finale. I remember a case at the Hollywood Bowl when we were performing the 1st Violin Concerto by Shostakovich. There is a long and brilliant cadenza between the third and fourth movements. The orchestra signals the end of the violinist's turn, and at that time, the audience erupted as if a fantastic drum solo in a club had just occurred.

The question of when to applaud is hotly debated in musical circles. Some say that it must only come at the end of a complete piece, lest the atmosphere be ruined. Of course this is mitigated by the same people who have no problem with outbursts at the end of arias in an opera, thereby completely disturbing the flow of the story. No one applauds at the end of Hamlet's soliloquy, so why do it in the opera house? When is the last time you actually heard the last few measures of the first act of La Bohéme?

But who can resist bursting out with enthusiasm when a great performance of the first movement of the Paganini 1st Violin Concerto or Rachmaninov 2nd Piano Concerto has occurred? For me, it really is a matter of allowing audiences the opportunity to express themselves and perhaps relieve some of the tension that has occurred in the music before the commencement of the next movement. After all, if they do not applaud, they most certainly will cough, and that is actually worse.

As Manny Ax so succinctly put it, "Applause should be an emotional response to the music rather than a regulated social duty."