At some point when I was growing up, there was a cultural shift in the way we educate and expose children to life. When I was in Little League, we kept score. There were winners and there were losers; this was not a reflection of us as human beings, simply an illustration in numerical form that one team was superior to another team in the singular sporting competition that all agreed to participate in. When I was in elementary school, if I spelled cat with a “k,” I got a red mark next to that answer signifying that it was wrong. Cat is spelled cat. It just is.
Nowadays we’ve empowered children in an effort to promote independence and free-thinking, occasionally in some pretty interesting ways. Little League teams that don’t keep score. Montessori schools that allow kids to direct the course of their own instruction. Whole language education that suggests that phonics aren’t necessarily something to be hooked on. The list goes on, but the list isn’t what’s important. The mindset of the adults behind them is.
I was reminded of this mentality at a recent concert I reviewed, a barn-burning program if there ever was one: Sinfonia da Requiem, Rainbow Body, and Beethoven 5. The program itself was barn-burning, but the execution of said program was more barn-tossing a cup of lukewarm water in its general direction. The entire performance, while technically very clean and polished, lacked even elemental passion and, to quote Marty Rossen in State and Main, “laid there like my first wife.” That didn’t stop the audience from saluting the performance with a rousing standing ovation and three curtain calls, a Certificate of Participation in hand-clapping form.
What happened? 100 years ago people caused a riot because they didn’t like the Rite of Spring. That’s not a metaphor. People were fighting, throwing shit, making all kinds of racket, all in response to a performance they didn’t like (the benefit of history allows us to alter that to say a performance “they weren’t ready for”). Today we sit quietly, desperately yearning for whatever it is we don’t like to end, and then applaud with the same vigor as if we had not minutes before been wanting to leap off the balcony in the hopes of landing on the composer. Sure, we’re talking shit about the performance under our breath, but to all outward appearances we loved the Schnittke.
I’m not advocating a return to the days of rattling your keys when you don’t like what you’re hearing, but withholding a standing ovation is hardly the same thing. I’m fairly certain everyone around me thinks I’m an asshole. I’m sorry, I was supposed to finish that sentence with “when I don’t applaud a performance that I didn’t care for.” But applause is the only thing we have as audience members, and we shouldn’t give it away for free just because someone made a go of it. In life there are winners and there are losers, and it’s OK to label them as such in a given context.
Obviously there are some exceptions here, and I’ll be first in the hypocrisy line to say that we should enthusiastically support children more than adults and amateurs more than professionals. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t temper it with the realism of remaining seated on our fat asses. Solid applause is always in order for any performer who takes the risk of trying to perform music (or dance or theater or any other art form) to the best of their abilities. Whooping and shouting “bravo” and a standing ovation are not solid, they are spectacular and should be used as such. The very concept has become diluted, a hollow and meaningless gesture that ends every concert with the same regularity as the “no flash photography please turn off your cell phones” message that begins them. How will we ever know when a concert was an earth-shaking, life-altering event when they’re all treated the same way?
So next time you’re at a concert, test yourself. Respond to the performance to the level that it resonated with you. If that means that you sit silently with your hands on your lap, that’s OK. If that means you furiously masturbate until release and are thrown out by an elderly usher because the finale was JUST THAT GOOD, you’ll probably just get sentenced to a 6-month psychiatric treatment program anyway.
Respond according to how you feel. It sounds so hard, but if we could get everyone to do it, we’d have a better gauge on what was truly meaningful and what wasn’t, and that would be a much greater service to performers, composers, and audience members than a “thanks for being here” round of applause.