What does seem a big deal is something I actually heard during an intermission in the Metropolitan Opera's live broadcast yesterday afternoon. I didn't catch the names of the people speaking, but the subject of intra-work applause came up, and although the subject here was opera and not concert music, the consensus was the same: the strong prohibition of intra-work applause has contributed to the stuffy air around classical music that has at least partly led to its decline in popularity. This seems to me a pretty serious idea, one that should be taken fairly seriously.
I see some folks around Blogistan and elsewhere insisting that classical music should actually get more serious, all the better to actually dissuade "the masses" from attending. Elitism is a good thing, we are told, which strikes me as an attitude that sounds nice but in the real world would almost certainly result in the final death of classical music as a mainstream cultural current. The idea that classical music should proceed with its number of living adherents never exceeding (X + 1), where X is equal to the number of classical music lovers living right now, just strikes me as odd beyond consideration. One of the interlocutors on the Met's intermission roundtable compared the current atmosphere at a classical concert to a "sacred ritual" that must not be interrupted, at any cost. That sounds fairly accurate to me.
My problem is this: sometimes I want my music to be a quasi-religious experience, while other times I want the kind of "Everybody groove!" atmosphere of other events. There are times when music is an intensely private affair to me, when I could be sitting in a crowd listening to the same work, and yet thinking that I'm the only one who gets it. There are times when I want to simply put on the headphones and exist in my own personal sound-world. And yet, there are times when I want to hear some music with other like-minded people. And I'm not sure which rules should apply in each case.
I guess that what I want, really, is for classical music to have the most inclusive atmosphere possible. I'm tired of telling people that I love classical music only to receive a faintly cloudy stare in return, as if they can't comprehend someone actually loving that old musty stuff, or getting some kind of weird admiration thing going on, like "Gee, I've always wanted to learn about classical music, but I dropped my piano lessons when I was ten and I wouldn't know where to start!" I just want to say, "Start anywhere!".
In fact, that's what I do say. It's just music. That's all it is. I figure that if we can get ten percent more people to just listen to some classical music, and ten percent of those go on to develop a lifelong love of it while most of the rest simply like it for a change of pace, then that's a net win for classical music. I certainly don't want to encourage any continuation of the "Hoi polloi need not apply" attitude in classical music. If loosening the rules of concert etiquette is part of getting more people to listen, then bring it on.
UPDATE: In comments, my good friend Chris -- a cohort of mine in college musical life, as well as a former roommate (who lived to tell the tale!) -- says this:
I always thought that when the conductor quit waving his arms and left the podium, you applaud.
That reminds me of something that was said on the Metropolitan broadcast I refer to above: one of the guys speaking complained about how audiences at the Met and, presumably, operatic performances in America in general don't even wait for the conductor to stop conducting: as soon as the curtain starts to descend, the applause begins. The problem here is, of course, that sometimes -- maybe even often times, although I'm not sure, given my incredibly limited experience with live opera -- the music goes on for a brief time as the curtain falls.
This reminds me of another strange phenomenon I've always noticed, in the movie theaters: whenever people start to sense that the end is near, there's this rustling sound throughout the theater as people gather up their stuff, put on coats, stretch their legs out, et cetera. It's really annoying. The last scene of a movie is often where the emotional payoff comes, but too many people seem to have an attitude of "OK, I get the point, what's next!". But it can become amusing to watch people do this when a movie goes past a point that seems like a perfect ending spot, like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, as they gather their stuff, start to rise from their seats, and then sit down again, only to rise again, sit again, and so on.
This is part of why more and more I find the private experience of music and film in my own home, via CDs and DVDs, a lot more satisfying. I don't get a whole lot of the "communal experience" from being in the theater; instead, I observe people applauding too soon or bolting up as soon as the first pixel of the first credit appears, and I just want to ask them: "Do you acknowledge the artistic and emotional experience that you just had, or was this mere timefiller for you?" This kind of thing breaks the illusion of the communal experience for me, because I see all too little evidence that we have communally experienced anything at all. I often feel like I have experienced something, whereas they have merely passively watched something.