10 Feb 2011
Inside the Classics

We’ve all been there. The symphony is drawing to a glorious close, the musicians in perfect sync, the audience suspended in that blissful state of common engagement that the best performances can sometimes achieve, the conductor holding the entire room in thrall…

…and then, just as the last echoes of the final chord float away into the ether, some self-important jackass decides that it’s way more important for everyone in attendance to realize that he knows that the piece is over than it is to allow the transcendent moment to carry over. So he immediately begins slapping his hands together with brutal force, and possibly shouting a few Italian superlatives for good measure.

Most nights, it’s no big deal, since a lot of symphonies end with a big crash-boom climax, anyway, and early applause gets buried under the weight of the music. But when it happens during a breathless moment of collective awe, after, say, the final gasps of a Strauss tone poem or Mahler symphony, it can be utterly devastating to the entire room. People (onstage and off) become genuinely upset. I become genuinely upset, and honestly, it takes quite a bit to upset me when we’re talking about audience decorum.

Back in my Alabama Symphony days, the ASO spent a few weeks each season as the pit orchestra for the Alabama Ballet, and we had the early clapper to end all early clappers. This woman, who may or may not have had a kid involved with some of the ballet’s productions, was at every single performance of The Nutcracker every December, and was at most of the other ballet programs we played as well. She sat dead center of the front row every night, and at the end of every single dance, she had to be the first to applaud. From my chair in the viola section, halfway back in the pit, I had an excellent view as she geared up for each new burst of self-aggrandizing applause. She was completely sincere, as far as I could tell, but also completely self-absorbed, oblivious to the visible pain she was causing to the patrons around her, who just wanted to enjoy a nice evening out without worrying about whether applause constituted a competitive event.

One of the nice things about making one’s living in the American Midwest is that we just don’t have a lot of such people about. When we get early clappers at a MN Orch show, they are, more often than not, inadvertent, short-lived, and instantly remorseful. (Which is sad in a whole different way, but whatever.) Still, like I said, we’ve all been there at least once or twice, and it’s astonishing how that single arrogant, attention-seeking early clap can stick with you.

All of which is to say: there’s this short film an old friend sent my way recently, and I love it. Not just because it hits the early clappers where they live, but because it also turns the perspective around on the rest of us.

So there’s that. We all live in our own heads, to a greater extent than we like to admit, I think, and maybe we’d do well to put ourselves in The Clapper’s shoes for a mile or two.

Or maybe not. That dude’s still pretty annoying.

<October 2019>

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